Current state of STEM education in the US: What needs to be done?

3 cool projects you can build with Mand Labs KIT-1 (Premium Edition)
December 22, 2017
5 reasons to visit booth #5959 at the #TFNY
February 14, 2018
 

Sean Mathew bailed out of his physics degree from one of the top colleges in the US in his senior year. He had been the kind of student that most employers would love to hire. His scores were excellent and he had planned to be a theoretical physicist like his role model Sheldon Cooper from the Big Bang Theory. But as Sean sat in his major class of 2016, he realized, he couldn’t relate his class theories to real-life problem solving skills. And when he looked at the curriculum, he didn’t see any respite. He was completely disillusioned.

Sean and his friend's experience shows how some of the best performing students are getting disillusioned by the way engineering or STEM subjects are being taught in schools and colleges, where there is more focus on theory rather than in hands-on learning.

Their story is not isolated. There are many like them who are switching to non-STEM subjects citing the same reason. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, by 2019 there will be a requirement of 1.9 million STEM educated professionals in the US, but roughly 40 percent of students, who intend to do a major in STEM, end up switching to other subjects.

 

STEM crisis in the US: Is it for real?


"Think about the America within our reach: A country that leads the world in educating its people. An America that attracts a new generation of high-tech manufacturing and high-paying jobs." - Obama


During his tenure, Obama had pushed for STEM education and endorsed for more public-private partnerships, more career training at community colleges and for more American innovation. And now, carrying his predecessor’s legacy forward and recognizing the importance of STEM education in enhancing a new generation of American workers, President Donald Trump had recently signed a memorandum for STEM education funding.

It’s true that the educators, policy makers, politicians, businesses are waking up to the importance of STEM today, but we all know that our nation had always had a shortage of STEM workforce. According to the third annual US News/Raytheon 2016 STEM Index, US continues to have a shortage of STEM professionals despite an increase in the number of STEM degrees. A Census Bureau report shows that about 74 percent of college graduates with STEM degrees are opting for non-STEM jobs starting from law to education and social work.

This is certainly a bad news for employers who want to fill STEM vacancies. According to the US Department of Commerce, STEM graduates are the most in demand and earn higher salaries than their non-STEM counterparts. The demand for STEM professionals is growing as the US economy has transitioned to a more focused technological-based economy from an industrial-dependent economy.

A study conducted by the National Math and Science Initiative indicates that only 36 percent of high school graduates are prepared to pursue a college-level science course. Another worrisome figure according to the Department of Education is that only 16 percent of high school seniors are keen on pursuing STEM careers.

Another unimpressive data released in 2015 by The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) had placed the US as the 38th out of 71 countries in math and 24th in science. There are even more reasons to worry as STEM jobs are being projected to increase 1.7 times faster than non-STEM jobs with top companies struggling to find professionals with the right skills to fill in the vacancies.

Based on a report from the US Patent and Trademark Office (1997-2015), it granted 3,030,080 patents to US entities, while the rest of the world was granted 2,709,771 patents. However, this trend is changing now with other countries leading the pack. This is a grave trend indicating the slowdown of science in the US.

What could be the apparent reason for this ‘crisis-like’ situation in STEM education? And how are we going to address the issue? Let’s look at how we can tackle this hurdle and “help give our American children a pathway to success in the workforce of tomorrow,” as Trump had said recently while granting a fund of $200 million a year to promote STEM.

 

1. Offer STEM curriculum in elementary schools


“For our economy to thrive in the future, we need more young women, as well as young men, to have opportunities to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics and pursue careers in these areas.” - Former Chancellor of the University of California, Linda PB Katehi


Research shows that the earlier we catch children and guide and support their wonder about the world by initiating the basic foundation for STEM, the more successful they will be later in life. Studies also reveal that students exposed to STEM at an early age perform better in science and math than children who are not. High-quality, early-learning environments also foster life-long interest in STEM, besides providing them with a structure to build upon their natural inclination to question, build and explore. These facts substantiate why STEM curriculum should be introduced in all elementary schools and for all students across the US.

Research confirms that children's brains are more receptive to learning logic and math between the ages of one and four. A study by the University of California, Irvine, has also proved that early math skills prove to be beneficial for later academic success. The study found that “early math concepts, such as knowledge of numbers and ordinality, were the most powerful predictors of later learning.”

As we all know how important math and STEM competencies are for the country’s long-term economic growth, it is increasingly important to focus on STEM in early education. Children are the future of tomorrow’s workforce, so they need to be exposed early to be able to prepare and qualify to fill in the soaring STEM vacancies.

And the best possible way to shore up that pipeline is to connect government entities, non-profit organizations, businesses and schools into engaged networks dedicated in supporting STEM education. Children should also be exposed to real-world STEM workplaces that will ignite an interest, as they experience the opportunities and understand the intricacies involved in achieving them. There is also an urgent need for the US to compete with countries which are churning out a large number of students competent in STEM.

 

2. Include hands-on learning to promote STEM skills


So, how do we imbibe an interest in the little minds? “Instead of attempting to fit STEM activities into existing blocks of learning, we should look at how we can deconstruct traditional content blocks and reconstruct meaningful experiences using innovative STEM practices,” says Nathan Lang, an education strategist with CDW-G.


Tristar Experience has recently refurbished a Lockheed L-1011 into a mobile classroom, where schoolchildren in Kansas will soon get to learn STEM hands-on inside the two-storey jumbo jet. This experience will disrupt conventional learning and spark an interest in children and inspire them to pursue STEM subjects in schools and colleges. This is an innovative way to lure children and pique their interest level, and will go a long way in engaging the little minds in inspiring them to actually look at STEM from a different perspective.

We need to think of such new and innovative ways to lure more children into learning STEM. Studies have found that being hands-on helps children get a better understanding of the subject or topic. It allows them to experiment and learn through their mistakes, besides grasping the gaps between theory and practice. Considered to be the best way to keep children engaged, hands-on activity also helps emulate real-life engineering design process and prevents students from getting bogged down by the topic.

As we know, STEM topics can be very complicated and difficult to understand for elementary students. This makes it all the more important to include activity-based, hands-on learning. Scientific information can be passed down through books and lectures, but when students are involved in hands-on learning, they learn things better and faster.

A meta-analysis research of 15 years on the advantages of hands-on learning, including 57 studies of 13,000 students in 1,000 classrooms, reveals that students in activity-based programs performed up to 20 percent higher than groups using traditional or textbook approaches.

It was also found that hands-on learning corresponds to a child’s natural curiosity and problem- solving skills. Learning with experiments expands a child’s curiosity and understanding of the subject. For instance, when children participate in science fairs or exhibitions or maker faires, they not only develop vital skills in science and math, but also improve on their confidence level and communication skills.

Research conducted by the University of Chicago reveals that students who are involved in hands-on experiments understand the concepts better and also score better than those who are not exposed to activity-based learning. The National Assessment of Educational progress has also indicated that students who indulge in hands-on learning activities weekly, fare better than their counterparts by over 70 percent of a grade level in math and 40 percent of a grade level in science.

It is therefore important to ditch the monotonous theory-based lectures and facilitate continued and creative ways by going the extra mile to inspire the next generation of scientists, innovators and makers. To fuel an interest and spark among children, we need parents and teachers to come together and play an equal role in encouraging children to explore and experiment without the fear of failing.

 

3. Get well-trained STEM teachers


“One of the things that I’ve been focused on as President is how we create an all-hands-on-deck approach to science, technology, engineering, and math…We need to make this a priority to train an army of new teachers in these subject areas, and to make sure that all of us as a country are lifting up these subjects for the respect that they deserve.” - Obama


Research reveals that experienced and well-trained math and science teachers make a life-altering impact on students, who outperform students with less experienced teachers. How can we expect children to learn if teachers are not well-equipped to teach STEM subjects? Experts suggest that for a better future of STEM education, we need well-trained and enthusiastic teachers who will be able to bring their first-hand know-how in mentoring children. Teachers should get professional development opportunities from time to time that will help catalyze their passion and talent for teaching STEM.

"There is a huge difference in learning arithmetic or mathematics from someone who understands it and loves to teach it compared to learning arithmetic and mathematics from someone who is afraid of it," says the first lady president of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Susan Hockfield.

A survey conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) states that around 30 percent of physics and chemistry teachers in public high schools are not well qualified in their fields and have not earned a certificate to teach those subjects. Having qualified teachers with strong content knowledge in STEM subjects is crucial to our economy. That is why it is critically important to have dedicated veterans, especially with a STEM background and have qualified individuals in the classroom who can lend their experience and knowledge to the students.

It is also important to introduce an effective teaching system prior to integrating STEM learning into early childhood education.

Educators should fully understand the ways young children absorb STEM concepts and accordingly come up with new and innovative ways to support and inspire children. Only if the teachers are well trained they will be able to guide and try out pedagogical techniques to see what works best and what doesn’t; they will be able to make STEM subjects fun and interesting for children and help them learn better; they will be able to sow the seed of interest that will gradually transition into an exciting and fulfilling STEM career. Teachers should be the spark that ignite children’s passion for STEM and they can be that spark only if they are well trained.

 

4. Remove disparity in pay and gender


“The way that technology companies can support women is to ensure that their cultures are inclusive and that they become places where women want to work and grow their careers...” - Marco Zappacosta, CEO and Co-Founder, Thumbtack, Inc.


Several studies point that the gender gap begins as early as grade school. The problem lies in society as girls are not encouraged to pursue science and math. They grow up with the general belief that they are not cut out for science subjects. Consequently, they end up pursuing arts or humanities.

According to the Harvard Business Review, women in science and technology jobs are 45 percent more likely to leave the industry just within a year compared to their men counterparts. The reason they cite varies from hostile work environment to disparity in wage. According to the US Census Bureau, the wage gap between men and women in the US is nearly $16,000 annually.

However, a new research by Paysa - a US survey salary firm - indicates that the initial obstacle the tech world needs to overcome is not paying women fairly, but getting them into the company in the first instance.

A report by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) suggests that technology and engineering literacy scores, which measures whether students are able to apply tech and engineering skills to real-life situations, showed a 28-point gap between students from low-income families and their more affluent counterparts, and a 38-point gap between black and white students. If this discrepancy is to continue our country will suffer immensely.

Including more people in the STEM workforce, irrespective of gender and race, is as essential to build a stronger US economy and a better American enterprise. Women might be getting more educated than ever before, however, only 25 percent represent the community in STEM fields. Based on a research conducted by the US Chamber Foundation, the number of women graduates accounted for only 6 percent compared to the 20 percent of the male graduates in core STEM.

The Department for Professional Employee's report indicates that women made up 57.2 percent of all professional workers in 2015. They comprised 46.6 percent of science professionals, 24.7 percent of computer and math professionals, and 15.1 percent of engineering and architecture professionals.

The lack of women STEM professionals mostly stems from want of role models. With more of boys’ club in the field, a more women-friendly career in the tech industry is the need of the day. Also, with demand for data analysts, software engineers and web developers expected to outstrip supply by 2025, efforts are afoot to equip women to reap the benefits. And now with President Donald Trump’s recent signing of two laws that authorize NASA and the National Science Foundation to encourage women and girls to get into STEM fields, hopefully the figure will dramatically go up.

 

Conclusion


There has been a lot of noise and debate regarding the declining numbers and this is prompting several initiatives by the government as well as top companies. Former President Obama was very committed to STEM. He left no effort in making unprecedented levels of public-private partnerships in STEM education; policies and budgets concentrated on increasing student access and engagement. Now, even President Trump is going all out to promote and encourage STEM education.

Even top companies like Intel had pledged $300 million to train and recruit women and underrepresented minorities by 2020. Several companies are also wooing women, and those underrepresented populations and those with disabilities for STEM jobs to boost overall capacity and diversity.

With all the efforts of the politicians, policy makers, educators, public awareness is definitely increasing. We can see a host of events being organized across the US to promote STEM, such as the annual White House Science Fair initiated in 2010, robotics competitions, Maker Faires among many others.

However, we have a long way to go before we project ourselves as the leader in STEM. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics had projected that about 92 percent of STEM jobs will need some level of related higher education and top companies led by giants like Apple, Facebook and Amazon will have over 650,000 new vacancies to be filled by 2018.

To be able to beat that number, we need more STEM graduates. But most importantly, no more Sean-like stories of switching from STEM to non-STEM subjects. And for that to happen we need to incorporate hands-on learning in classrooms as well as outside in designing, constructing and creating.

As Aristotle had said: “For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.”
Urmila Marak
Urmila Marak
Urmila, who is a Big Data and STEM enthusiast, works as a senior content manager with Mand Labs. She is a believer in transformation of life and career through STEM. She can be reached on Twitter @umarak.