Far too many students believe that the STEM fields are made up of topics and classes that require learning large lists of number and facts with little practical application. While this might be true in some theoretical areas of science, most STEM careers focus on achieving real, perceivable, and usable goals. Students learn better when they have more in-depth exposure into how and why something works and when they are allowed to explore topics as deeply as they wish. American students perceive that they want to be able to use their creative passion to power their careers to develop something new and exciting. In short, they want to innovate.
While the United States has long feared its continued poor test scores in math and science compared to other industrialized countries, there is one edge that the United States has that other countries have been trying to emulate: a spirit of innovation. In a recent interview, Wendy Hawkins of the Intel Foundation noted that countries around the world were seeing a drop in interest in the STEM fields. She also noted that many countries that test well (such as China) are producing educated individuals but not innovative thinkers. These countries are trying to reorient the way they approach STEM education to add creativity into the mix.
To keep this edge, the United States cannot be lax about encouraging innovation in STEM learning. This focus on innovation is not something that can be taught separately in the classroom; instead, it has to be embodied in the way students learn. Whether it is through encouraging students to guide their own learning, having students participate in science fairs, or by pushing students to learn more than just what they will be tested on, an entrepreneurial spirit of innovation is a hallmark strength of American students, and it should be fostered as students' progress through the educational system. For instance, the Intel Science Education Fair gives students the opportunity to compete for a variety of prizes based on the students' own original research into STEM-related fields. The 2013 award winners developed low-cost, self-driving cars, a cell phone battery that can charge in 30 seconds, and a more developed map of space to understand dark matter better. These student innovators and the thousands like them across the country should be nurtured for the benefits that they can bring to society both now and in the future. Instead of teaching them how to pass a test, educators should be teaching them how to unlock their fullest potential.
To help foster this spirit of national innovation, many educators and business leaders are calling on government officials to adopt the Next Generation Science Standards for K-12 education. These standards will provide a centralized bank of knowledge for all American students to have regarding the sciences, allowing students nationwide to be competitive in their future STEM careers. Further, these standards place an emphasis on active learning through engaging with information and using it to develop models and carry out investigations regarding the topics at hand. STEM-based businesses such as Intel, IBM, Cisco Systems, and Microsoft among many others have signed on to this initiative, supporting increased science education inside the classroom.
Further, the United States cannot let any student languish behind in STEM education. While some students will naturally have a greater interest in the field than other students, STEM education is important in every field. As Jamie Blivin, founder and CEO of Innovate+Educate, noted in a recent interview, almost 90 percent of today's jobs will require some sort of STEM-based knowledge. Whether its usage of computers, increased science knowledge required of all healthcare workers, or employers wanting a workforce that can cope with rapidly shifting and evolving technology, STEM skills learned in the classroom can be utilized for years to come. By teaching these skills with collaborate, exploratory techniques, STEM educators can hope to impart a spirit of innovation to their students. Though this innovation will probably not manifest in every student forming the next Apple, Inc., this spirit will transform into a flexible mindset that can learn, comprehend, and transform as technology and information change around them. Innovation creates flexibility, and flexibility can bend with shifts through time.
Of course, education will not change overnight, and there will never be a time when every student wants to grow up to be a scientist - that's part of the joy of the diverse American education system. However, by enabling teachers to teach to students' interests rather than to test content, giving elementary school teachers tools to engage students regarding STEM fields, and fostering students interested in innovation and STEM learning, the United States can enable a future generation of workers ready for whatever the world has in store for them.