All of WARF’s programs follow the Next Generation Science Standards, guidelines for teaching science created by a consortium of 26 states and education associations.
Released in 2013, NGSS emphasizes student-conducted investigations over lectures and teachers posing open-ended questions, instead of queries with only one right answer.
Through WARF, kids leverage these principles to learn about 3-D printing, stem cells, and other topics that mirror the work of real scientists in the university’s laboratories.
WARF scientists doing their lab work.
After all, UW-Madison is a research university – a relatively new concept, said James Duderstadt, recipient of the 1991 National Medal of Technology and Innovation.
“Prior to the second World War,” he added, “there wasn’t much research going on at universities.”
Duderstadt, who served as president of the University of Michigan from 1988 to 1996, credits engineer Vannevar Bush with the research programs that allow undergraduate and graduate STEM students to engage in real-world experimentation.
During the war, Bush – a 1963 National Medal of Science laureate – headed the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development, the government agency responsible for nearly all military innovation.
In 1947, the organization dissolved, but Bush pushed for research to continue with his landmark report, “Science – the Endless Frontier.”
After years of debate, Congress passed a law, signed by President Harry S. Truman, creating the National Science Foundation. One by one, federal agencies like the Department of Defense began to take Bush’s advice, funding university research related to their missions.
“The University of Michigan does $1.3 billion a year worth of research, and most of it’s sponsored by the federal government,” Duderstadt said. “If you look at our portfolio of activities, education is a big one. Of equal size is research.”
There are other changes afoot in America’s universities – especially with engineering, he added.
“If you go back into the early part of the 20th century, engineering was regarded as a profession,” said Duderstadt. “Engineers were like doctors – except rather than cure disease, they built bridges.”
This attitude contributed to engineering programs largely based on “too much technical crap,” Duderstadt said.
As disciplines expand – and new disciplines spawn from cutting-edge discoveries – Geraldine Richmond, awarded the 2013 National Medal of Science, sees similar complications when it comes to cramming too much into a 4-year education.
“As new fields arise, you keep adding to the pile of things to learn, and you don’t take anything away,” she said. “There’s a real struggle to have realistic expectations for what the content of any course should be.”
Dr. Richmond receiving the National Medal of Science from President Barack Obama
A field like neuroscience, she said, must incorporate cognitive science, biology, physics and chemistry.
Students must go through endless basic courses, often losing interest before being introduced to the exciting, emerging fields.
This strategy – “teaching in silos,” Richmond said – also leaves little room for a well-rounded education.
As a result, more universities are upping their requirements for credits in liberal arts, which teach students crucial communications skills and prepare STEM majors for the business world.
Dartmouth, for example, offers a program for students to pursue a liberal arts-heavy Bachelor of Arts in engineering, along with a professional Bachelor of Engineering degree.
But there’s still more work to be done as the number of STEM graduates stagnates.
In 2014, 34 percent of all bachelor’s degrees in America were in science, technology, engineering and math fields, compared with 33 percent in 2004, according to a report from the National Student Clearinghouse.
The key to improving these numbers, Duderstadt said, is simple: keep the student body engaged.