In 2001, Judith A. Ramaley, former director of the National Science Foundation’s Education and Human-Resources Division was credited by many educators with being the first person to brand science, technology, engineering and mathematics curriculum as “STEM.” It was swiftly adopted by numerous institutions of higher education, as well as the scientific communities, as an important focus for education policy and development. STEM education has often been called a “meta-discipline”-meaning it removes the traditional barriers erected between the four disciplines, by integrating them into one cohesive teaching and learning paradigm. STEM education promotes real-world experience, teamwork, and the authentic application of technology. It also promotes discovery, problem-based learning, and project-based learning. STEM is supported by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Education.
Why STEM Education?
Over the years, there has been growing concern that the United States is not preparing a sufficient number of students, teachers, and practitioners in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics Studies have shown that a large majority of secondary school students fail to reach proficiency in math and science, and many are taught by teachers lacking adequate subject matter knowledge.
When compared to other nations, the math and science achievement of U.S. pupils and the rate of STEM degree attainment appear inconsistent with a nation considered the world leader in scientific innovation. In 2009, The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) revealed that American students ranked 17th out of 34 in science literacy and 25th out of 34 in math literacy, among students from developed countries. (Students from China were ranked number one globally in math, science and reading.) In addition, The U.S. Department of Education reports that America now ranks 20th internationally in the number of graduate degrees awarded in engineering, computer science, and mathematics.
Workforce projections for 2014 by the U.S. Department of Labor show that 15 of the 20 fastest growing occupations require significant science or mathematics training to compete successfully for a job. At the same time, though, data shows a significant decline in the number of college students choosing majors in science or technology- related fields. Much of this can be linked to poor preparation for the classes during high school and the intense work required for those majors. If this trend continues, there will be a workforce shortage in areas of engineering and science fields.
Some Numbers to Consider:
• By 2014, Two- million jobs are expected to be created in STEM-related fields (Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation)
• 40% of students in the United States test at below basic math level; 70% African Americans and 3/5 Latinos test below math level (2005 National Assessment of Education Progress- NAEP)
• Half (50%) of all students test at below basic science level. The numbers are worse for African Americans (80%) and Latinos (70%) (NAEP)
• The number of engineering degrees awarded in the United States is down 20% from the peak year of 1985. (Tapping America’s Potential)
• Although U.S. fourth graders score well against international competition, they don’t stay there. By the time they reach the 12th grade, they fall near the bottom in math and dead last in science. (Tapping America’s Potential)
• In 2001, there were slightly more than 4 million 9th graders. Four years later, 2.8 million graduated and 1.9 million went on to two and four year college. Fewer than 300,000 are majoring in STEM fields and only about 167,000 were expected to be STEM college graduates in 2011. (National Center for Education Statistics; Digest of Education Statistics)
President Obama’s Call to Action:
In 2010, President Obama announced the launch of Change the Equation, a CEO-led effort to dramatically improve education in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), as part of his “Educate to Innovate” campaign. Change the Equation is a non-profit organization dedicated to mobilizing the business community to improve the quality of STEM education in the United States.
President Obama has identified three overarching priorities for STEM education necessary for laying a new foundation for America’s future prosperity: increasing STEM literacy so all students can think critically in STEM subjects, improving the quality of math and science teaching so American students are no longer outperformed by those in other nations and expanding STEM education and career opportunities for underrepresented groups, including women and minorities.
The President’s 2012 budget request and Blueprint for Reform of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act are designed to help to strengthen America’s leadership in the 21st century by improving STEM education. For example, the President has announced an ambitious goal of preparing 100,000 STEM teachers over the next decade, with at least 10,000 STEM teachers recruited over the next two years.
Most recently, efforts to improve STEM education throughout the country have gotten a boost, due to several grants.
- Researchers at the University of Virginia and the Concord Consortium have received a $1.35 million NSF grant to create new kinds of science lab activities that bridge virtual and real environments, according to a UVA press release.
- The Massachusetts Institute of Technology‘s (MIT) Education Arcade is getting $3 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to design, build, and research a multi-player online game to help high school students learn math and biology.
- The Northrop Grumman Foundation has announced a new initiative that will provide 16 middle and high school science teachers the chance each year to visit Costa Rica to experience firsthand field collection of biodiversity and climate data, and bring these learning opportunities to their classrooms.
The Bottom Line:
Interest in STEM Education and the importance of these fields of study has garnered increasing attention over the past couple of years. STEM is now a keyword that many education officials, organizations, businesses, teachers, students and parents are aware of. Private donors as well as charitable foundations and federal and state governments help fund grants for programs that focus on STEM areas. Millions of dollars in grants have been awarded to schools, programs, and districts for projects ranging from geo-caching to robotics to math tutoring. The hope is that greater strides in STEM education will be taken in the coming years to keep the United States competitive in these areas.