Educators, advocates see increased importance in US STEM education

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When it comes to education reform in the United States, Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) is the term that is usually at the tip of the tongue of every policy maker, teacher, or school advocate. For its detractors, STEM is a buzzword for more standardized tests or a de-emphasis on humanities education. For its proponents, STEM signifies an increased dedication to making American schools globally competitive — preparing students for a job market that is becoming increasingly more reliant on science and technology skills.

According to 2012 statistics from the National Math + Science Initiative, there are 26 and 19 industrialized nations that perform better than U.S. students in math and science, respectively. The same report shows that, by 2018, it is estimated that 63 percent of all jobs in the U.S. will require some post-secondary education, while 92 percent of all STEM-related jobs will be for individuals with post-secondary training.

For some advocates of STEM reform, progress has been gradual, but over the past few years there has been greater visibility and awareness of the need to inspire more and more students through science and mathematics.

“Look at other countries, and there are a lot of other countries that have done a better job with STEM subjects at the educational policy level. STEM should be more of a priority, but things are changing. The last two presidential administrations have made it (STEM) a priority, which is not true for administrations in the past,” James Brown, executive director of STEM Education Coalition, told “Education laws change slowly, and change goes both ‘upwards’ from local school districts up to state and federal government and downwards to people like principals and superintendents.”

Brown said that working for STEM Education Coalition — a large nonprofit affiliated with more than 500 member organizations that aims to lobby for increased governmental awareness and support for STEM education — has given him a front-row seat to the continued movement to effect change in schools nationwide. He added that STEM is integral to giving students an edge in the economy upon graduating high school and college.

“The economy is changing with an emphasis on technology skills across all sectors. The emphasis now is that not all STEM jobs require four-year degrees. When I was growing up, you had what were called ‘blue collar jobs,’ now you have technicians who need to be highly skilled in tech. You need people who can repair MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) machines, or work on electric cars,” Brown said. “You now need technicians who need to have really hard STEM skills. That’s a skill set that will be growing over the next five years, it will be more in demand, and giving students the foundation for those kinds of careers starts in school.”

At the governmental level, STEM has increasingly entered the conversation. In January, President Barack Obama announced that the 2016 budget would include $3 billion in investments in STEM education, an increase of 3.6 percent over the previous year’s funding. This budget includes provisions for $100 million for more educator training through the Teacher and Principal Pathways program as well as $125 million in funding for Next-Generation, STEM-focused high schools.

Similar to his 2011 State of the Union address, President Obama pledged to train 100,000 teachers for STEM roles in schools by 2021.

Brown suggested that, while these kinds of policies increase awareness of the importance of STEM in schools, they don’t necessarily signify a substantial shift.

“The challenge of looking at these federal policies is that ‘flat’ is the new ‘up.’ It’s not a substantial increase from what the federal government proposed the year before. It’s a small increase from year to year,” Brown said.

A big part of increasing STEM’s profile nationally centers not just on government reform, but also on making science and math-focused education accessible to as wide a population of students as possible. Brown suggested that a big part of outreach from corporations in schools involves providing mentorship, particularly to students who come from communities that are underrepresented in STEM fields.

“For instance, there is a low representation of African American students in engineering. Sometimes you have students who come from backgrounds where there isn’t a relative or a parent who is involved in engineering, so it’s important that these companies and organizations provide mentors who these students can look to and learn from,” he said. “If these students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds have mentors to learn from, then they are more likely to look into STEM as a possibility, to be excited by STEM in school.”

Getting young women interested in STEM subjects in school is a big part of the puzzle of diversifying a field that can at times seem pretty homogenous. A 2012 study from the Girl Scouts Research Institute found a disconnect between young girls’ interests in STEM in school and whether they considered it a viable career option.

The study found that 74 percent of teen girls are interested in STEM subjects in school. While 81 percent of girls interested in STEM consider pursuing a STEM career, only 13 percent see it as their first choice upon graduation. Around half of all girls reported that STEM “isn’t a typical career path for girls,” and that 57 percent of girls surveyed said that if they did ultimately pursue STEM professionally, they would have to “work harder than a man just to be taken seriously.”

Breaking these perceived cultural barriers can be difficult, but Melissa Moritz, managing director of the Teach for America STEM Initiative, said that they are key to ensuring continued success for the growth of STEM education. TFA’s STEM Initiative was founded in 2006, geared toward recruiting educators to teach STEM. A big part of the initiative’s goals was not just to recruit more instructors of STEM subjects, but to also to diversify the teaching workforce — giving young women and minority students, especially, the chance to be mentored by people who come from backgrounds like their own.

“I do think role models help open up unexpected (professional) roles to young people that they didn’t expect to look into,” Moritz told “Mentoring and role models play a huge role in the STEM puzzle.”

Moritz, who graduated with a biology degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), said that she didn’t consider a career in STEM education until her senior year of college. She said the expectation that came with her degree was to pursue a path like medicine, but during a career fair began to consider the possibilities of becoming an educator. Moritz, whose father was an engineer and whose mother was a sixth grade math teacher, said she recalls a teacher early on encouraging her to think about math and science.

“There is a real powerful opportunity that comes from having someone standing in front of you who might share an aspect of your identity, whether it be gender or race, and then you see yourself in them,” she said. “They are standing in front of your classroom and they are a role model every day for you. For me it was my seventh grade math teacher.”

Providing students with mentors they can identify with is key, while Brown also suggested that it is crucial to impart on students the fact that STEM is not “a monolith of these four subjects.”

In answering the common complaint that a focus on STEM takes the spotlight away from humanities and the arts, Brown suggested that today, “STEM doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone.”

“Look at art and architecture, the importance of design and technology – there are problem solving skills that people need to learn that don’t necessarily fit everyone’s definition of math and science,” Brown added.

Both Brown and Moritz agree that five years from now, STEM will have an even greater presence across school campuses nationwide.

“I firmly believe that our kids across the country are just brilliant, amazing students. Our kids have opportunities to pursue their dreams, to think about STEM as a potential field of study,” Moritz said. “I really believe our kids are going to provide the sole answers to the challenges of the future and the challenges of today, and that to do that, they will need to apply STEM skill sets. It’s our job through education, our responsibility to open up this amazing world of STEM.”