Opinion
College & Workforce Readiness Commentary

We Must Create Opportunities for STEM Learning

By Sara Martinez Tucker — May 14, 2013 4 min read

Our country is in trouble. That’s the key takeaway from my experience as the undersecretary in the U.S. Department of Education. We have been inching along in math and science while other countries are speeding forward. The United States ranked 25th in math and 17th in science in the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment.

Education outcomes such as these mean our country’s businesses will have a tough time finding American workers who have the math and science skills to carry out the jobs of today, much less tomorrow. A 2011 Manpower survey found that more than half of American employers were struggling to find workers to fill key jobs that required advanced science and math skills. Case in point: The CEO of Siemens reported his company had more than 3,000 U.S. job openings, but only 10 percent of the applicants were able to pass the test for prospective employees. In other words, 90 percent of the applicants didn’t have the schooling to do the job.

The prestigious President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, or PCAST, estimates that our country needs to graduate about 1 million more professionals in science, technology, engineering, and math over the next decade to stay competitive globally. And yet degrees in the STEM fields account for only 17 percent of all degrees awarded in the United States, compared with the international average of 26 percent.

While African-Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans make up a third of the U.S. population, they represent only 9.1 percent of college-educated Americans in the science and engineering workforce. Women are also severely lacking in the STEM workforce. Fewer than 10 percent of U.S. engineers are female, even though women constitute almost half the nation’s labor force.

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We’ve got a lot of work to do. Our country is just beginning to wake up to the fact that growth in STEM jobs is three times faster than in other sectors. Students who are facing the job search are getting the message that STEM workers earn 26 percent more on average than their non-STEM counterparts. What all students need is the kind of K-12 education that will equip them to succeed in college and go on to earn a living wage.

How can we get this done? The message from the statistics is clear: We’ve got to make math and science amazing and accessible for more young people. We’ve got to revitalize STEM studies for our country to grow and maintain its global economic standing.

I have seen the phenomenal progress that the National Math and Science Initiative has made since it was launched in 2007 by leaders in business and science. The initiative is raising the academic bar in our public schools. More than 60,000 teachers have received personalized, intensive training so they can raise the level of rigor in their classrooms and have more students succeeding in math and science. More than 462 high schools are expanding Advanced Placement classes so that more students can master college-level work.

We've got a lot of work to do. Our country is just beginning to wake up to the fact that growth in STEM jobs is three times faster than in other sectors."

As the president and CEO of NMSI, I’m particularly heartened that qualifying scores for African-American and Hispanic students in the schools participating in our Advanced Placement program are averaging a 107 percent increase in AP math, science, and English the very first year. And that’s eight times the national average, according to the College Board.

Finally, the initiative is expanding the University of Texas’ UTeach teacher-preparation program, which has recruited more than 6,000 high-achieving math and science college students into the teaching field at 35 universities across the country. And a new $21.25 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute will make it possible to expand the UTeach program into 10 major research universities at the start of 2014.

The individual success stories behind these numbers are also encouraging:

• Alejandra Munoz spoke no English when she arrived in Connecticut from Chile. She mastered eight AP courses and was accepted to the biomedical engineering program at the University of Connecticut.

• Hannah Barber grew up loving horses and math in Oklahoma. When she’s not tackling stats and calculus in NMSI’s AP program in Oklahoma, you can find her volunteering in a wildlife refuge and a therapeutic-riding program. Her dream is to earn an engineering degree to improve the environment.

• Rudy Davis came from a single-parent home in Alabama and worried that college might be out of reach because of his socioeconomic circumstances. As a result of the support from the initiative’s AP program, he succeeded in 10 AP courses, raised his grades from the 68th to 97th percentile, and earned enough scholarships to major in biomedical science at Auburn University.

There are millions more like Alejandra, Hannah, and Rudy who deserve a realistic shot at success. Our collective goal should be to reach them by taking these and other programs like them to the next level of expansion, to inspire more students, train more teachers, and transform more schools. We must work together now to regain our competitive edge and ensure that all students have the opportunity to prosper in a global economy.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 15, 2013 edition of Education Week as We Must Create Opportunities for STEM Learning

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