STEM-tastic!

 

Jan/Feb 2011

STEM-tastic!

On the mission to build a workforce that is better prepared in science, technology, engineering, and math, we have lift off.

BY DANIELLE BOYKIN

The year 2010 may well be remembered as the year that a four-letter word usually associated with plant life made it into the national spotlight.

STEM—science, technology, engineering, and math—is suddenly everywhere. After starting out as a jargony acronym used mainly by policy wonks, it has turned into a mission that has captured the enthusiasm of people across the country.

Local leaders in places like Winona, Minnesota, and Bartlett, Tennessee, are considering opening STEM-focused schools. In Massachusetts, the owner of the Salem Harbor Power Station gave $1 million to local schools to improve STEM instruction for kids in grades 1-8. NASA is holding STEM teacher workshops; universities are forming STEM networking groups; and governors are working on a STEM agenda with an eye toward economic development. Even Facebook's vice president of engineering recently blogged that STEM is essential to keeping the $50 billion, or so, company running around the clock.

Why has STEM become so popular? Public policy and education experts believe that the U.S. will continue to lose its competitive standing in the world if leaders in government, business, education, and the technical professions don't use their resources to improve innovation and increase STEM knowledge. And they must make sure that STEM knowledge reaches young people and the general public through fresh and creative tools that inspire and show the importance of innovation to society.

Jodi Peterson, cochair of the STEM Education Coalition, has noticed more attention focused on STEM recently than she has seen in the last 10 years. From the White House to company boardrooms and into the classrooms, leaders are getting serious about the importance of STEM. "President Obama saw the value of [STEM education], and I also think he saw this as an issue that can resonate with the business community," she says.

Peterson has also seen a refreshing change in thinking on when it's best to introduce young people to STEM. "The thinking used to be, 'We can wait until college and then give students the STEM education they need,'" she says. "Now the focus is more on K-12 levels where it should be."

Growing Interest
Linda Rosen, who heads the new organization Change the Equation (CEq), says that U.S. economic woes and the need to create new jobs through innovation have sparked interest in STEM education. "STEM is getting more attention because we know that our economic health depends on our competitiveness, and our competitiveness depends on innovation. And innovation is primarily grounded in the STEM disciplines," she says.

Change the Equation, which is led by corporate CEOs, was launched in September as part of the Obama administration's Educate to Innovate initiative. The organization emphasizes the need for more STEM education by pointing to some dreary statistics.

  • In 2009, just 34% of U.S. 8th graders were rated proficient or higher in a national math assessment;
  • In 2009, among the 34 OECD countries, 17 had higher average scores than the U.S. in math, and 12 countries had higher average scores than the U.S. in science; and
  • Only 43% of U.S. high school graduates in 2010 were ready for college work in math and 29% were ready in science.

To engage more professionals and educate students about STEM in a creative way, CEq recently held a "S.T.E.M. is Cool" video contest. Nearly 20 companies produced and submitted videos featuring an employee or group of employees who use STEM in exciting or unexpected ways.

"We have found that some teachers have started using some of these videos because they are really cool and appealing," says Rosen. "A two- or three-minute video is not going to change someone's mind instantly, but it is an introduction and a new way of thinking about STEM."

The contest's success has encouraged CEq to invite people from all walks of life to share details about their STEM jobs in brief, fun ways. The goal is to collect and disseminate these descriptions, which can take the form of brief paragraphs, videos, audio clips, cartoons, or any other engaging format, through the organization's Web site, blog, and Facebook and Twitter pages.

Sending the Right Messages
For decades, professional engineers have made it a priority to reach out to young people across the nation through programs such as MATHCOUNTS and Engineers Week, which is celebrating its 60th anniversary in February. Yet, there is more work to be done to make sure that PEs are fostering STEM literacy and inspiring the next generation of innovators in the most effective ways.

In June 2008, the National Academy of Engineering released the report Changing the Conversation: Messages for Improving Public Understanding of Engineering, which recommended new ways for engineers to educate the public about the profession and arouse the interest of young people in pursuing engineering careers. The new messages were supposed to replace the often-heard but less-than-inspiring messages, such as "Engineering is tough" or "If you're not great at math and science, don't even try."

Some progress has been made. "A number of the engineering societies have done some significant things in terms of taking up the report and its messages. But more broadly, our impression is that the message about changing the message hasn't reached many parts of the engineering community that we had hoped it would," says Greg Pearson, NAE's senior program officer on the project.

NAE will embark on a follow-up project called Changing the Conversation: From Research to Action to encourage more parts of the engineering community to take these messages more seriously. An action plan will be developed to improve messaging campaigns, and a new Web site was launched in January to help engineers effectively reach out and encourage young people.

NSPE Past President Kathryn Gray believes that EWeek serves as one of the best events for professional engineers to participate in STEM outreach. "All across the country we have [engineers] who are out there, and they have the outlets to reach the kids, but not all of them are familiar with what they should be saying," says Gray, a member of the National Engineers Week Foundation's board of directors.

Gray knows that even during the shortest conversation with a student, he or she can be turned on to engineering and innovation—or completely turned off. "Talking to the kids about how important math and science is, is not going to help them want to become an engineer," she says. "EWeek, the Future City competition, and MATHCOUNTS are the perfect venues for a PE to tell a student that, 'You have the ability to make a world of difference. You can turn ideas into reality by just honing your skills and going into the engineering profession.' That's the kind of message that makes the kids more interested in engineering."

Gray hopes that the new NAE project and Web site will foster outreach training for engineers and encourage engineering societies to publicly commit to using the new messages when communicating with members and the public. "We know what the messages should be, and we need to make sure that we are all saying the same things. We are moving in the right direction," she says.

The next challenge is making sure the right messages about the importance of K-12 STEM education reach the families of students and the general public. "[Parents] have a lot of other things to do, and this hasn't resonated and gotten on their radar screens yet," says Peterson. "We need to do a lot more work to get the message to parents how important science, technology, engineering, and math education is to their children."

Walking the Walk
Creating cool programs to capture the attention of the next generation of scientists and engineers is the fun side of the STEM mission. These programs, however, cannot be developed and supported without more serious discussions and the development of action plans from business leaders, government officials, and professional engineers.

With new leadership in Congress and an economy that is still recovering, Peterson believes that members of the STEM Education Coalition, which includes NSPE, will have to remain diligent about pushing for continued education funding and investments for R&D. "It's really going to be interesting to see where things are going to go with this new political climate. We are concerned where the federal funding will go for STEM," she says. "It's one thing to talk the talk, but you've got to walk the walk."

In a recent report on growing the economy, the Business Roundtable offered the following recommendations for the federal government to improve education:

  • Sustain investment in basic research in the physical sciences and engineering. Focus attention on improving STEM education to ensure continued U.S. scientific and technological leadership and to develop the next generation of scientists, engineers, and STEM-literate Americans;
  • Continue to invest in competitive programs, like the Department of Education's Race to the Top, that focus on performance and encourage innovation and expansion of high-quality charter schools; and
  • Promote a Race to the Top competition for two- and four-year colleges that focuses on completion rates and attainment of credentials valued by employers.

According to the Business Roundtable, there is clearly a strong link between the STEM knowledge gap and business growth. The organization's report says that undereducated and under skilled workers, particularly those who lack proficiency in STEM, will not be qualified for the new jobs that the U.S. economy will create. Employers say that they have difficulty finding qualified employees to fill openings despite the high national unemployment rate, and 50% of employers see a sizable gap between their needs and the skills of employees.

A recent report on jobs protection from Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce shows that about 90% of jobs in four of the five fastest growing occupational clusters will require postsecondary education. These clusters are healthcare professional and technical occupations, STEM occupations, community services and arts occupations, and education occupations.

Governors across the nation realize that improving the STEM skills of young people and the workforce is critical to economic recovery. In an effort to develop a comprehensive STEM agenda, the National Governors Association's Center for Best Practices formed a Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Advisory Committee to assist 29 newly elected governors and incumbents. The committee will build on the "Innovation America" work that began under the leadership of former Arizona Governor and current Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, who served as chair of the National Governors Association in 2006-07.

"Governors have recognized for a long time the importance of this issue because education policy and change and reform really does play out at the state level," says Angela Baber, who serves as a senior policy analyst in the NGA center's education division. "When you increase the number of STEM professionals, you increase a state's innovation capacity, which generates more economic development and growth; and when you increase the base-level skills of students and workers, you increase a state's capacity to attract more businesses," says Baber.

The NGA center is focused on connecting the STEM education agenda to workforce capacity and economic development. The 19-member committee includes representatives with expertise in education, public policy, business, and STEM content areas. They will assist with expanding the NGA center's STEM agenda targeting early childhood, K-12 and higher education, providing recommendations for establishing and advancing comprehensive education agendas, and developing a national meeting that will be hosted by the NGA center in the fall.

Baber adds: "It's great to have a national level of momentum and interest and to have industry leaders rolling up their sleeves and coming to the table with states to find the solutions to these complex problems."