The future of STEM looks equally bleak. America's score on the international PISA test (which compares student achievement by subject across different countries) placed the country below average, at an abysmal 21st place in mathematics.
Luckily, these problems have sparked a renewed interest in STEM education, prompting educators and policymakers to focus on making science, technology, engineering, and math core education priorities that will encourage student engagement and excellence through hands-on interactive learning.
The ongoing development of STEM education not only enables students to compete in the international job market but also encourages the United States to develop a larger base of collegiate STEM graduates. Further, it prompts students to improve their critical thinking skills and problem solving strategies. But the benefits from STEM don't stop in the classroom, laboratory or manufacturing plant but extend to the larger society.
Civic literacy, according to the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, involves thoughtful participation in civic life and governmental processes; exercising civic rights (such as voting) at all levels of government; and understanding the impact of civic decisions at both the local and global level. An increased focus on STEM education does not just improve an individual's science and math literacy; it also builds that person's civic literacy. Indeed, numerous studies show that individuals who attain higher levels of education are more likely to be involved with civic institutions than their less-educated counterparts.
Therefore, keeping students interested in STEM and on track for careers in these fields may well help boost voter turnout and overall civic literacy as a result of creating a more educated American population.
Perhaps the most significant impact STEM will have on society's civic literacy skills involves helping both policymakers and voters understand multifaceted issues in all of their intricacies. Take, for instance, the much-misunderstood field of patent reform. Patents are used to protect the ideas and products that individuals and corporations develop. They were originally introduced to encourage creation and spark innovation. However, the United States has patent laws now that are woefully out of date because they have failed to address the digital revolution. Because of this, areas of the law that affect trade, how users interact with technology, access issues, user privacy, ownership of software, and a plethora of other issues all need to be renegotiated and reformed so that they make sense in the modern landscape.
An informed constituency is a vital part of this conversation; after all, most people use software and technology in their daily lives. If the population is better informed about the issues involved with coding software, developing technology, and engineering new solutions, then they cannot help but be better prepared to understand such issues when they encounter them. Through this, individuals can add their voices to a dialogue that risks becoming over-saturated with the viewpoints of profit-seeking corporate interests.
But patent reform in the technology sector is just one area of STEM that can increase civic literacy. In the coming years, numerous issues that will call for democratic participants in the American process to be conversant in science and math will crop up. Whether it's cloning, bioethics, global warming, genetically modified foods, or environmental regulations, science forms a core underpinning to understanding and debating each of these vital subjects. Further, tax policy (while often esoteric and dry) is math-based. If people fail to understand the math of the tax system, how can they ever hope to advocate for reforms to make the system more transparent and fair?
There is more to STEM education than jobs. There is more to STEM education than the joy of inspiring a student to strive for new potential. There is more to STEM education than the satisfaction of innovation and invention. These are all important things, but the benefits of STEM do not stop there. STEM education has the potential to weave itself into the very fabric of the civic framework of the United States. A more informed population can make better decisions on both a local and global scale.
This is why, even if students end up as future authors, dancers, doctors, or members of the U.S. Congress, they need a strong foundation in science and math. STEM is not just for tomorrow's scientists; it is for everyone who has a vested interested in keeping America's future bright, strong and evolving for generations to come.