STEM Education continues to emerge as one of the most critical components needed to prepare the next generation of workers for the future. Identifying the fundamental skills that STEM interventions impart, where they should occur, and how they apply to our workforce needs is crucial.
STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) Education references are everywhere: newspapers, blogs, Twitter, speeches, etc. Indeed, it requires little imagination to understand why STEM is important: Innovation in STEM fields has been the primary driver of improvements in quality of life and economic well-being for centuries. To see STEM in action, look no further than your iPhone, running water, or the roads you drive on to work. Today, however, we have a problem: Large sections of our workforce do not have the skills to meet industry demand. Compounding the problem is the fact that our education system, in its current configuration, lacks the assets and will to ameliorate the situation. In economic terms, we are experiencing labor market failure from the supply side. Systemic change across our education system is a mammoth task but one we cannot afford to ignore any longer.
The “STEM is important” discussion needs to evolve to where there is a more comprehensive understanding of this complex problem. Unlike the binary issue of support (or not) for STEM in education, there are many viable approaches for addressing weaknesses in our education system. Moving forward in this policy discussion will require that we take stock of where the most pressing problems lie, and what is being done to resolve them, and verify that we are implementing best practices research to positively impact achievement.
In approaching STEM workforce issues, we need to dig a little deeper than where we are now in the public sphere. We need to get more specific without being overwhelming. While there are a plethora of concerns, there are three that are critical and, if addressed correctly, are potentially transformative for our workforce and, consequently, our future.
First, we need to improve the pedagogical and subject area competence of our STEM teaching corps. Second, we need to integrate the teaching of these subjects and apply them to real world issues so that we leverage the natural bridge between all four fields. Finally, we need to address the disproportionate underrepresentation of women and minorities in STEM fields. If we can bring these issues to the forefront of public discussion and not just those in education, we will have made a good start in elevating the discourse so that we can summon the political will to make the most beneficial choices for our children’s future.
Teaching Teachers to Teach
Improving our teaching corps is critical and challenging and will require policies that address the social and economic constraints of teaching and training in both content and pedagogy. A good starting point for improving the quality of teachers is to address the most obvious deterrent to entering the profession: pay. Even when factoring out professions like law and medicine, the average worker in STEM professions in the U.S. makes between $67,000 and $79,000 annually, whereas the average teacher earns about $56,000 per year. Programs that address this incentive through remission of loans or additional salary will attract the best and brightest to the profession.
Another challenge is training and recruitment. The most recent data available indicates that 69% of students in grades 5-8 are taught math by teachers without math certification. The Carnegie Corporation of New York is the custodian of the 100Kin10 Initiative with more than 100 partners backed by the Obama Administration. Their goal of recruiting 100,000 science teachers in 10 years is ambitious, and there is currently a paucity of programs that instill both professional teaching skills and content knowledge.
One program in the 100Kin10 Initiative that addresses both incentive and training structures is the UTeach Program, a National Math and Science Initiative Program that targets top science and math students in higher education and offers them financial incentives and the ability to graduate with an additional credential in the same amount of time. UTeach has been nationally replicated through the UTeach Institute and in spring of 2012 there were currently 5,538 students enrolled in 29 campuses throughout the US. These efforts are a start, however, they are only as effective as their execution, and we must continue to innovate in our approach to teacher training and content mastery.
STEM Meet STEM and STEM Meet World
Integrating STEM subjects and attaching them to real world problems dovetails with teacher training but expands into the realm of developing benchmarks that drive innovation and encourage connective thought. STEM needs to meet STEM. In other words, the STEM subjects need to interact with each other throughout the educational pipeline to remain relevant and rigorous. Also, STEM subjects need to be applied to real-world problems that are relevant to students’ lives. The National Governors’ Association Center for Best Practices has developed the Common Core State Standards. Key components of these standards include integrating international best practices and skills required in both college and the workforce. In science, the National Research Council’s Next Generation Science standards are similar to the Common Core in that they value integration with other STEM fields, encourage behaviors endemic to the scientific professional community, and foster creative connective thinking. These standards align with internationally accepted best practices and are the result of a national grassroots effort to boost achievement. We need to keep them free from political gamesmanship.
Equity Will Help Fill the Pipeline
Gender and ethnic inequity in STEM fields continues to be a chronic problem. Commerce Department Reports issued last summer found that Blacks and Hispanics comprise only 12% of the STEM workforce, despite representing 25% of the population. Women were similarly underrepresented across STEM fields, where despite representing 48% of the workforce, they comprise only 24% of the STEM workforce. If we are looking for STEM professionals, there is a large degree of untapped potential in these two groups.
There are many interventions that have emerged to address this issue with varied results. The Building Engineering and Science Talent Program (BEST) has led exhaustive evaluations of programs, and the National Science Foundation has several programs aimed at improving participation of Women, Blacks, Native Americans, and Hispanics in STEM fields. BEST identifies five principles of good programs: defined outcomes, challenging content, personalization, engaged adults, and persistence. These principles make sense as they correlate with success in most competitive contexts. Programs with a plan, that are challenging, engaging, and led by passionate committed professionals are more likely to succeed. As we evaluate these programs, we need to be careful, however, to set reasonable expectations for results but to push for the desired outcomes.
Where to Next?
Improving STEM skills in education and the workforce has become a rapidly identified national priority. If we are to move forward, however, we must understand where to intervene, what works, and why it is important. These three areas do not operate independently. There is plenty of overlap between all three, and each area will require efficacy in the others’ implementation in order to be successful. They represent, however, a good starting point to move the public discourse on this topic to a point where we collectively can make the best decisions for our children.