A Conversation with Dan Hull, Author of “Career Pathways for STEM Technicians”
Call me a geek, but the book I recently started that’s on the top of my summer reading list is “Career Pathways for STEM Technicians,” written and compiled by Dan Hull through a $75,000 National Science Foundation grant sponsored by the University of Central Florida. Dan Hull sent me a complimentary copy of the first run of 2,000 editions that he is giving away to selected organizations, companies and educators across the country. At the time of this writing in late August, I had the opportunity to talk with him, as his book was getting prepared for sales in both printed and digital formats.
Dan is the executive director of the National Center for Optics and Photonics Education. He’s also a registered professional engineer who has worked in corporate laboratories and field environments for the Department of Defense, the Atomic Energy Commission and NASA. He has more than 30 years of experience in technical education and development and has authored several other books on “Tech Prep” in recent years.
Making it Clear about the Need for STEM Technicians
Dan is very passionate about getting more people interested in careers as technicians. He is a real pleasure to talk with because he does not mince his words and makes a lot of sense. My first question: What’s the definition of a STEM technician, Dan?
“They are geniuses of the labs and the masters of the equipment,” he replied. “They are not the gopher that makes coffee, runs errands and does manual labor. In R & D labs they work alongside the engineers who design and build stuff. But we (engineers) cannot make everything work all the time. We put everything together with coat hangers and bailing wires, and they (the technicians) know how to put it all together and make it reliable and make it work.”
According to Dan, there’s a dire need going unfulfilled today for more STEM technicians. As noted in the book, which consists of 15 chapters written by 22 contributors in addition to Dan, “we don’t have enough technicians to support continued technological innovation or to staff the organizations that could improve our country’s economic position in the world.” In addition, “we don’t have adequate educational opportunities for capable, struggling high school students who need – and deserve – an opportunity to enter a rewarding career.”
Moreover, Dan explained that the greatest source for these new technicians is what many people consider to be low-academic-achieving high school students who typically don’t get enough attention or support from high school teachers and administrators. “The high school leadership, the parents and the counselors all have great admiration for the A students, but the students making Bs and Cs, or the ones who are struggling with math, get put aside,” he says. “But these kids are smart. They are applied learners who learn better in context. They ask questions like ‘how is this going to be used?’ And ‘why do I have to learn this?’ If the only answer they get is that it’s going to be on the test, they are not going to learn it.”
Placing Part of the Blame on High Schools
In addition, Dan said that the typical high school STEM curriculums actually discourage the potential for more technicians by teaching, in the 11th and 12th grades, for instance, abstract courses that ultimately weed out the B and C students, such as pre-calculus and calculus “which, quite frankly, only about five percent of us need.” I immediately thought about my son, who graduated from high school this year. He was an A student in everything but his pre-calculus course. He is now a first-semester freshman at a state four-year institution, and studying math is not even close to being on his agenda.
Dan also clearly explained how our nation’s high schools pretty much neglect to provide information to students about STEM technician career opportunites, in general, as well over-emphasize that students must enter four-year programs as opposed to two-year applied associate of science degree programs offered by community colleges that can result in fairly exceptional, decently paid entry-level technician jobs. In his refreshing plain English, he said “if you are a school board member, you get re-elected based on how many kids are going on to the big universities. If you are a superintendant, you get hired and patted on the head if your kids go on to the big universities. If you are a principal, the superintendant pats you on the head if you get the kids to go on to the universities. And if you are teacher or a counselor, the principal rewards you in the same way.”
Yes, I thought, why is it that all we ever hear about at high school commencements is how Johnny got accepted into that big-name private college with a full scholarship, but we never hear about that very bright and ambitious kid who has decided to take on a challenging applied associate of science degree in electronics engineering technology at his local community college that can ultimately earn him a decent, interesting and challenging job for a fraction of the tuition cost?
Getting the Word Out
As Dan said, “parents need to know that a technician job is a valuable job. It is a rewarding job. It is a career and not a dead end. They don’t understand this.”
In the end, in addition to educating parents about the benefits of career opportunities (Dan said people with an AAS in laser optics, for instance, can start at a $45,000 to $64,000 annual salary) and paying closer to attention to supporting those talented B and C students, leaders in high schools, leaders in higher education, and leaders from the companies that are seeking more educated employees all need to play an elevated role in advancing career pathways for STEM technicians.
About the Author
George Lorenzo is president of Lorenzo Associates, Inc., and writer, editor and publisher of The SOURCE on Community College Issues, Trends & Strategies, a rich information resource dedicated to the postsecondary education sector. He has more than 25 years experience as a professional education writer, editor, researcher and publisher.