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Hey, America, here's how you spell success: S-T-E-M -- Science, Technology, Engineering and Math

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Reuters

American athletes just finished competing in Sochi with top athletes from around the world. As U.S. competitors give their very best, our nation rallied behind them. What if we could drive the same effort and ambition towards our competitiveness in education? We have a long way to go -- and need a disciplined, focused training plan -- but there is hope to take gold again.

Over the past several weeks, two headlines were published that should put our nation’s education system on high alert, but so far they have not: China Lands Its First Unmanned Probe on the Moon: progress comes as the U.S. scales back its space ambitions.

And, U.S. students still only average on tests: American high school students still post only average scores on a key skills test administered to kids in 65 countries across the industrialized world

In 2009, for example, the U.S. graduated more students in the visual and performing arts than in computer science, math and chemical engineering combined.

At the same time, a disturbing new poll from Pew reveals that for the first time in over a generation, a majority of Americans believe “the United States plays a less important and powerful role as a world leader than it did a decade ago.”  

The poll also finds that almost a majority of Americans (48%) see China as the “world’s leading economic power.”  This is up 18 points for China since 2008.  

Meanwhile, the major technology story out of the United States for the past three months has been that our government cannot build a website to provide health insurance to its own citizens after three years of preparation to do just that. 

Just over 150 years ago, Abraham Lincoln—in the midst of a war that tore this country in two—could still call the United States “the last best hope of earth.” Today, too many Americans would have a hard time saying this, much less believing it.

It doesn’t have to be this way, and it shouldn’t be this way; I know we can do better—and I believe it starts with our education system, particularly in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields.  

I know we can do better because I’ve seen plenty of schools and programs get this right, encouraging student interest and a thirst for learning, boosting scores, and training students for careers in the STEM professions.  But they are not the majority.

Increasing STEM interest, abilities, and achievement in our students and throughout our education system is not just a parochial interest, it is in our national interest.  With all the concern about our high unemployment rate that seems frozen in amber, STEM professions are some of the few very bright spots on the horizon of our economy and for the future of our students’ success.

The Department of Commerce estimates that the number of STEM jobs will grow 17 percent by 2018 versus 9.8 percent for all other fields and that by 2018, the United States will have more than 1.2 million unfilled STEM jobs. 

While this may sound like an outstanding opportunity for American students, it will mean nothing if we do not adequately prepare our students to fill these jobs.  And we are not presently on the path to do this, as one recent report found other countries and continents are far ahead of us: last year, “20% of undergrads in China were studying in the STEM fields. In Europe it was 11%. In the U.S. it was 4.4%.” 

While we succeed in graduating students in the liberal arts, given today’s economic realities and our innovation needs, the tilt is simply too one-sided for our students and our nation’s success.  

In 2009, for example, the U.S. graduated more students in the visual and performing arts than in computer science, math and chemical engineering combined. Liberal arts are expanding, STEM is contracting—while the jobs and need are in the latter fields.

There no longer is much excuse for the middling scores our students achieve in comparison to other countries as the latest OECD/PISA test reveals.  In fact, it is more than sad that we spend more than almost every other country in the world on education while our 15-year-olds place 21st in Science and 26th in Math—behind such countries as Estonia, Poland, Lichtenstein, the Czech Republic, and Canada. 

In their new book, "Endangering Prosperity," Erik Hanushek of Stanford, Paul Peterson of Harvard, and Ludger Woessmann of the University of Munich, point out that if we could simply achieve what Canada achieves in its level of educational performance by 2025, giving us a little more than a decade to get there: “The average annual income of every worker in the United States over the next eighty years would be 20 percent higher….the gains from a faster-growing economy over the lifetime of somebody born today would amount to five times our current GDP…enough to resolve the projected US debt crisis.”

Can we do this?  Of course we can—I’ve seen the actual prove the possible in plenty of good and great schools and with the help of several non-profit organizations dedicated to professional teacher training and encouraging student interest.  

Project Lead The Way (PLTW), an organization I advise, is one of them, and there are others, from the Sally Ride Science Foundation to the Perry Initiative, to name just a few. 

It’s not a secret as to how to do this.  

First, we simply must encourage interest in STEM fields and careers, and at early ages.  One recent report found that “[n]early 90 percent of high school graduates say they’re not interested in a career or a college major involving science, technology, engineering or math.” 

Yet, it’s not that difficult to build early interest that lasts. One study of science graduate students and professionals found that over 40 percent of them reported first becoming interested in their fields between kindergarten and fifth grade. 

Another study of 5,000 science students found that “positive classroom experiences, such as relating the content to students’ lives, were strongly associated with the completion of a college degree in STEM.”  

We are not doing a good job of encouraging this now. According to a recent study commissioned by Intel, today, 63 percent of teenagers never consider a profession in engineering, nearly 30 percent of teenagers do not know of any potential jobs in engineering, and 20 percent cannot explain anything about engineering’s impact on the world.  

But, the same study found that “exposure to any facts about engineering leads more than half of teens to say they are more likely to consider engineering as a career.”  

Simply talking about engineering, explaining what it does and is, and what fields it opens the doors to, changes half of teens’ minds! This is where the effort needs to be directed, focusing at the elementary level is key.

The recipe must also include teacher training with a hands-on, programmatic, and project-based approach to teaching and learning as well; focusing on depth over breadth in an interdisciplinary approach where the application of STEM learning is applied to the universe of knowledge and accomplishment rather than teaching the fields in isolation from one another and other subjects.  

As Vince Bertram of PLTW put it: “It is the difference between solving an equation (which can be dry and boring) and confronting a problem and then using the equation to solve it (which can be exciting and relevant).”

Although the 2014 Winter Olympics are over, let us hold onto the competitive spirit and commit to putting our students and our country on the pathway to being not only the last best hope, but the first best hope.  

We were before, we can be again.  And it begins with education.

William J. Bennett is the author of “Is College Worth It: A Former United States Secretary of Education and a Liberal Arts Graduate Expose the Broken Promise of Higher Education.” He was U.S. secretary of education from 1985 to 1988 and director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George H.W. Bush.