The internet is dark. Bridges fall into disrepair. Hospitals and physicians’ offices close. Pollution is out of control. Research labs shut down. Energy resources are at crisis levels. Transportation systems have come to a halt. The economy is in shambles.
This isn’t the scenario for the latest zombie apocalypse movie. It’s a peek into life without STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – professionals. The modern world relies on these specialists to keep life running smoothly, but while the number of jobs in these fields increases, the availability of qualified workers falls far behind. For every two available jobs in STEM areas, there’s only one unemployed person capable of filling them.
This reality could become even grimmer. For instance, by 2020, the U.S. will have an estimated 1.4 million computing jobs. It’s likely, though, that only 400,000 students will be majoring in the field. That’s a huge gap to fill. A closer look at STEM careers reveals exactly how important they are to society. STEM education, from elementary through university, is the only way to develop them – but it needs to expand. Fast.
It’s Everywhere, It’s Everywhere
STEM jobs are not needed just to maintain the status quo. They’re responsible for 60 percent of America’s economic growth in all aspects of life. Check it out:
- Innovation: Without competent STEM professionals, you won’t see advancements, discoveries and inventions. It’s more than having great ideas. It’s following through and turning brainstorms into reality.
- Economy: The economy balances on math and statistics. Tip the scales too far the wrong way, and the Great Depression will be a fond memory.
- Communications: Like your smartphone? Find it handy to search the internet for directions when you’re lost, a recipe for chicken masala or quick relief from poison ivy? Where would you be without modern technology … and how much farther it can still go?
- Infrastructure: Roads, bridges and buildings don’t construct themselves, you know. Professionals design and then build these structures so they’re safe and durable.
- The environment: Declining populations of species. Pollution. Climate change. Natural disasters. Who do you think identifies and then works to solve these pervasive issues? All together now: STEM experts.
- Health: Worried about the zika virus … or whatever new epidemic is waiting around the corner? Smallpox has been eradicated. Polio cases have been cut 99 percent. Thank you, STEM professionals. We look forward to your future service.
- The arts: You might think the world of art is far removed from STEM, but you’d be wrong. New materials and technologies expand how artists express themselves.
- Conflict: It’s sad but true: War brings new STEM innovations that ultimately are useful to society as a whole. Radar, mass production of penicillin, blood transfusion technology and widespread use of plastics and were just some innovations that came out of World War II.
The State of the STEM
So are we all agreed that STEM is important? The next step is ensuring comprehensive education in these fields. Currently, American education is not fully meeting the needs. Just a quick glance shows:
- When assessing top students, the U.S. ranks 15th in the world for science literacy and 28th for math literacy.
- Only 25 percent of students up to speed in math when they finish 8th grade
- More than one-quarter of young adults think school didn’t prepare them well enough to pursue STEM degrees in college
- Qualified math teachers are in short supply in many school districts
- In general, there is a lack of connection between STEM classes and other disciplines
- Many students who begin in college STEM majors don’t finish
Upward and Onward
Improving STEM education is not an insurmountable task, but it’s not going to be easy. Changes will require money and new personnel. Some schools districts and higher education institutions are already leading the way. Both research and successful schools show that best practices for STEM education include:
- Using hands-on learning and problem-solving activities so students gain experience
- Linking education to real-world professions
- Encouraging cooperative learning. Innovation seldom emerges from a lone genius
- Integrating STEM learning and technology into all disciplines, and using skills from other areas, such as writing, to enhance reflection and problem solving
- Giving students time to ask questions, explore and engage in inquiry
- Providing qualified teachers, many of who have professional experience in STEM fields
- Creating effective forms of assessment
There’s no doubt about it. To simply maintain the typical American lifestyle, the country needs more STEM professionals. But the U.S. has always been about innovation. The country needs to invest in STEM education programs. Progress is going to depend upon effectively educating many, many more students in STEM fields. That’s going to mean changes – but the U.S. is open to changes. After all, fewer than 250 years ago, the country didn’t even exist. Developing STEM education is just another step along the way.