Last week, as part of the Imagine Cup award ceremony, Hal Plotkin, the Senior Policy Advisor in the Office of the Under Secretary of Education, praised Microsoft for its commitment to STEM education with its hosting of the global student technology competition. Plotkin encouraged other companies to step up and invest in these sorts of endeavors. As the projects submitted to the Imagine Cup must tackle the UN’s Millennium Goals – poverty, hunger, disease, infant mortality, environmental destruction, and so on – it’s not just good for the U.S. education system, it’s good for the world.

Microsoft is not the only corporation involved in promoting STEM education.  Earlier this year, MindShift profiled the Change the Equation non-profit, through which companies like ExxonMobil, Dell and Lockheed Martin have supported science and technology education. Intel says it’s spent over $1 billion on education projects. And just last week, Google announced the winners of its first online global science fair, just one of the many programs that the search engine giant has undertaken to help encourage budding scientists, engineers, and programmers.

Corporate sponsorship and funding is seen as necessary to help boost the programs that oftentimes schools can’t afford. That seems to be particularly true when it comes to student competitions and science fairs, as these sorts of “extracurricular” projects are often on the chopping block when schools look to streamline their budgets.

But what are the implications of having students engaged in corporate-sponsored science? In the case of both the Imagine Cup and the Google Science Fair, participating students were required to use Microsoft and Google products respectively in their projects. Of course, students don’t often have a choice when it comes to the technology they get to use in the classroom. If your school has Windows computers, you use Windows; if your school runs Macs, you use Macs.

Corporate-sponsored activities aren’t anything new in education, and they certainly aren’t restricted to science fairs. One need only look at sports to see how marketing and sponsorship “plays out” — for better or worse.

Technology corporations do have a vested interest in helping support STEM education as it means a good supply of skilled workers in the future. But it’s easy to see companies’ involvement as marketing efforts — producing future customers, not just future employees.

How then do schools distinguish STEM-as-marketing from STEM-as education? And do they need to? How do we both welcome and scrutinize these corporate efforts? What are our alternatives?

One may be the “maker movement,” as exemplified by Make magazine and the Maker Faire. The DIY, hands-on exploration encouraged by the maker movement may be just the thing to get kids encouraged in science and technology. Not only does the maker movement encourage creativity and innovation, but it’s also breaking down the walls of the schoolroom, making it clear to students that science isn’t something that happens in the lab or in the classroom. It can happen in your backyard or in your garage. And it can happen without major investment from big companies.

  • Charles Lawton

    I’ve given this topic some thought after walking away from the Imagine Cup disappointed in the first-place winner. I’m not operating in so much a vacuum to understand who’s footing the bill for MICROSOFT’s student competition. And yes, in this context, the reliance on Microsoft’s development stack is understandable.

    But, Microsoft places the event on a pretty high pedestal with using the UN Millennium Development Goals as a hook, and I’m having a hard time reconciling that the solution that best adhered to the spirit of addressing the UN MDGs loses because it wasn’t tech sexy.

    With regards to STEM-as-marketing vs. STEM-as-education, I’d be hard pressed to oppose a corporate donation of technology for a cash-strapped school district because the computers have Dell slapped on the side. Classmate PC programs win out over the One Laptop Per Child programs because of first-world vs. developing world problems. First-world schools want a solution based on Windows that integrates with their existing infrastructure (software, imaging and support), and there are more opportunities for Intel and Microsoft to deploy ClassmatePCs than OLPC will likely find with their narrowed focus on the developing world where no such technology infrastructure requirements (mostly because there is no tech infrastructure!)

    But corporate sponsorship in actual education (not just the tools of education) is where a line needs to be drawn – and certainly for students who cannot yet see the difference. Advertising is bad enough but I don’t think I want my kids learning MS Math or Google Science if only because I don’t trust that these organizations can design a curriculum. It certainly isn’t core to their mission.

    So where does the role of corporate sponsorship belong? I don’t think we can escape it. Is there, then, a framework where those organizations who have excess capital and the desire to invest in their communities and their schools can do so with those of us hoping for impartiality are able to have it? I find it hard to believe that the myriad technology companies donating money to these events would instead just become a sponsor to something else. For them, this is as much a branding exercise as it is an educational one. 

    I believe its up to us to know and point out the difference. Microsoft did not misrepresent what the Imagine Cup was. There are those of us who want it to be more. I hope it is not just a pipe dream…

  • Anthony Cody

    I love the spirit behind the Maker movement. I think we get so caught up in thinking that our kids need the latest whizbang educational products, we lose sight of the nature of genuine inventiveness. Real creativity is what we can do *without* the thousand dollar robot kit. 

    I have been a science teacher for the past two and a half decades. Look at the technologies that have come and gone in that time. Classroom computers, CDRom games, Laserdiscs, and now we have the miracle smartboards, the instant voting clickers, and so forth. 

    I am not a Luddite. I sought out new technology when I was in the classroom. But I got by far the most bang for the buck when the technology was something students could really use themselves to be creative — like digital cameras. When the profit-motives of corporations are driving technology adoption, we have put the cart before the horse. Teacher and student committees should carefully review expenditures on technology, especially when we are closing school libraries and laying off librarians and counselors.

  • Part of the challenge for teachers is connecting students to role models and professionals working in S.T.E.M. fields. My new book, Connecting Students to STEM Careers, Social Networking Strategies, will be released by ISTE in the fall and is available for order already:

  • Anonymous

    Corporate sponsorship and funding is seen as necessary to help boost the programs that oftentimes schools can’t afford.

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