It takes a crisis to fully appreciate the professionals who step up to deal with it on our behalf. We hold especially dear our firefighters and police officers since 9/11/2001. We honor and celebrate our military servants who protect us from terrorism and global conflict. And now we are filled with gratitude for those on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic through so many mitigation efforts at the community, state, national and global levels. Professionals in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) are today’s heroes.
Epidemiologists and statisticians are using mathematics to establish distribution patterns so that resources can be prioritized. Computer scientists model various spread scenarios to inform government actions. Nurses, EMTs and other direct healthcare providers are drawing on expertise in immunology and cellular biology to protect and heal. Virologists have profiled the COVID bug so that a vaccine can be developed. Pharmacists weigh a cascade of biochemical effects in filling prescriptions to abate symptoms. Geneticists deciphered the genes of COVID-19 to quickly find it in swabs of noses and throats. Biomedical engineers design respirators and safety gear that technicians cannot build fast enough. How fortunate are we Iowans that people chose to study those fields in school and now work so hard for us. This crisis is what education professionals call a teachable moment: one use of time during this period of suspended normalcy could be to help inspire their successors, today’s preK-12 learners, to be tomorrow’s STEM heroes for the challenges sure to come on the heels of coronavirus.
The Iowa Governor’s STEM Advisory Council has pursued a mission to inspire Iowa’s young people to become innovative, enterprising contributors to our future workforce and to the quality of life in our communities. In each of the nearly nine years since launch, the urgency of that mission has grown, and strong return on investment has accrued. But, like every other education service provider, the Council’s implementation team has suspended in-person activities until the COVID-19 crisis passes. Now that half a million youngsters are learning at home alongside their parents and other caregivers for weeks to come, the STEM team has seized an opportunity to provide resources for this teachable moment. Educators and caregivers of our future physicians, coders, statisticians, builders and teachers can make lemonade from the lemons we have been dealt by visiting www.IowaSTEM.gov/teachablemoment . The STEM Council’s network team has curated a collection of some outstanding activities to do in kitchens, garages, backyards and online to bridge downtime and send them back to school invigorated to charge ahead toward a STEM career. The STEM team adds depth and variety to the resource daily and stands by to offer any assistance needed. Iowa students, educators and STEM professionals are welcome to contribute links to activities, demonstrations, tutorials, tours, talks and other learning tools to Info@IowaSTEM.gov.
History suggests a spike in interest and action after national crises. Life science research made significant advancements in the wake of the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918. After the 1973 OPEC oil embargo, U.S. consumers demanded and got much more efficient vehicles while markets diversified petroleum sourcing. After 9/11, the US military enjoyed a modest bump in enlistees. Perhaps from 2025 to 2035, we will see enrollment spikes in health and bioscience majors at Iowa colleges and universities as a result of this teachable moment brought to us by COVID-19. Until then, a hearty nod of appreciation from appropriate distance to all of Iowa’s pandemic responders and to those nurturing their next wave.
Jeff Weld, Ph.D.
Iowa Governor’s STEM Advisory Council