The Value of STEM EducationLaw makers and educators continue to emphasize science, technology, engineering and math or STEM education as a critical part of the foundation for a 21st century economy. The U.S. Department. of Labor has now stepped up to put some money behind the mandate for schools and teachers at all levels to focus on STEM. The agency awarded $500 million in grants to community colleges around the country to create Credentialing to Careers, a nationwide effort to develop new slate of associate degree and certificate programs that will help both new and displaced workers launch entry-level careers in tech and science-based fields such as health care, communications, electronics, energy and environmental technology. Colleges will team up with local and regional businesses to develop programs that will equip students with the skills needed for jobs in the increasingly tech-savvy labor force.
The new grants, once again, emphasize the importance of STEM education K-12 and the national curriculum standards in science, math, engineering and technology. In order to prepare high school graduates to take advantage of programs such as Credentialing to Careers, teachers at all levels of public education need a united commitment to build the basic skills needed in post-secondary STEM programs.
Most teachers agree that STEM education is a priority, and they acknowledge that students who successfully acquire a solid foundation in science and math have a far broader range of academic and career opportunities open to them. And jobs in STEM related field consistently pay more than jobs in social sciences, education arts and often business. But the importance of STEM goes beyond the goals and aspirations of individual students. According to a 2012 report from Harvard University's Program on Education Policy and Governance, American students ranked 25th in math and 17th in science compared to students in 30 other industrial countries. Students in South Korea, Finland, Canada, New Zealand and Japan topped the list used for the Harvard report. Other studies show U.S. students lagging behind their peers in Singapore and Slovakia in math, and behind Estonia and Hungary in science.
During the 20th century, the United States led the space race and dominated the growth and advancement in most branches of science because of the comparative strength of the U.S. economy and its education system and also because of the lack of resources in other parts of the world. But the game has changed. The emergence of an interdependent, global economy has allowed other nations to catch up, and the United States now faces competition from many nations on a broad range of scientific and technological fronts. If Americans want to continue to lead the world in scientific breakthroughs and innovations, or they even want to stay in the forefront, the country needs an educational strategy that inspires and trains future generations to step into those roles. STEM education is a key part of that strategy.
But the argument for emphasizing STEM education may be more urgent than remaining at the head of the pack for scientific and technological achievement. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the United States is in the midst of a demographic shift that will have major consequences for the American workforce. For the first time, the number of workers over 55 who are still on the job is outpacing younger workers who are entering the workforce. The problem isn't only that there are fewer young people with the skills needed for STEM careers, there are fewer younger people. Not only is the United States at risk of falling behind in research and development, it's conceivable that there may not be enough qualified people to fill the jobs needed to maintain healthcare, communications , and transportations systems, and to help keep other science based industries operating at current levels.
Teachers and school administrators offer a number of different explanations about why STEM education often appears stalled despite new curriculum standards. According to U.S. News and World Report, which has been tracking STEM initiatives and progress, there is a dire lack of qualified math teachers in public schools. And educators often bristle when asked why U.S. schools are so far behind their counterparts in South Korea and Estonia. Many will say that in those classrooms, teachers have a groups of students who speak the same language and share the same cultural references and values. And many foreign countries have educational systems that are rigidly stratified with only top students studying for spots in universities. Students who, for whatever reason, fail to achieve are often redirected to vocational training early on.
American classrooms, on the other hand, are highly democratic and open to all. Students who are on different academic levels, from different cultures with different social norms and values are placed together. In many cases, teachers have classes with students who speak a variety of languages. There are many challenges involved in teaching algebra to a multicultural class of students who come with different expectations and learning styles. Still, those challenges are not insurmountable.
Educational policy makers must find a way to recruit STEM teachers, particularly from Hispanic and African American communities. Teachers can't to do it on their own and there needs to be more than just talk about engaging parents in education. Community leaders and businesses need to contribute to advancing STEM education by providing opportunities that allow students to fully understand and experience what a career in science can offer. And STEM education needs adequate funding. Although it requires a lot of work, wherever the United States find itself in 50 years will depend on heavily on how it manages STEM education today.