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STEM Education: Challenges and Progress

19 Jul 2015 by Teresa Meek

Why that date? On July 20, 1969, American astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the moon, and Armstrong uttered the now-immortal words, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

As for the national holiday, despite growing support over the years, it remains an unfulfilled goal.

Kind of like STEM education itself.

Starting with Sputnik

Science and math education in the U.S. took off after the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik in 1957. Fear led to a national push to make the nation the world’s leader in STEM (Science, Technology, Education and Math).

“The Soviet Union now has — in the combined category of scientists and engineers — a greater number than the United States. And it is producing graduates in these fields at a much faster rate,” President Eisenhower declared.

The following year, NASA was founded. A decade later, the U.S. emerged as the leader in graduating students with engineering degrees.

In 1983, the Reagan Administration’s National Commission on Excellence in Education published A Nation At Risk, outlining programs for education reform to keep the U.S. competitive.

Two years later, Halley’s Comet passed near earth, an event that happens roughly every 75 years. Project 2061 was launched with the goal of making all Americans literate in science, technology, engineering and math by the time the comet returns in 2061.

But despite all the educational reforms and lofty goals, the U.S. is still struggling to maintain an edge in science, technology, engineering and math fields.

Vital statistics

By 2020, STEM professions will require a million new qualified workers to fill jobs, according to the STEM Education Coalition. But only 16% of American high school seniors are proficient in mathematics and interested in a STEM career, and only 30% of high school seniors who take the ACT test are ready for college science classes.

Eighth graders in Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Japan, Hong Kong and Russia all score higher on math tests than U.S. kids. For science scores, you can add Finland and Slovenia to the list.

Students who do go on to study STEM fields often change their minds. Some 38% of those who start off majoring in a STEM field graduate in another discipline, and of those who take degrees in a STEM field, 43% don’t end up working in the field, despite high wages, according to the Center on Education and the Workforce.

Women and minorities are significantly underrepresented in STEM fields. Only 23% of workers in STEM are women, compared with 48% of workers in all occupations. African-Americans and Latinos represent just 10%.

Bright spots

Universities are beginning to change their approach to STEM education, engaging students with welcoming spaces where they can congregate and learn, instead of sitting passively at a desk while professors scribble formulas on a whiteboard. Some college professors are showing students "cool applications" of research before getting into the heavy theories and evidence behind them.

Innovation is happening at the high school and elementary level, too. Students in Warren County, Ohio, recently performed an end-of-year concert for their families, friends and school staff on electric guitars they built with their own hands.

At Insight’s 2015 International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) conference, the founder of the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Science of Baseball program explained how the program is helping students translate their love of baseball into an appreciation of the science and math behind it.

As STEM programs become more engaging, perhaps students will take a greater interest in the field and follow through by pursuing related careers. If that’s not incentive enough, a million new high-paying jobs ought to do the trick.

Parents can do their part by making STEM seem interesting and supporting kids in their studies.

And not that it will make a huge difference, but if you want to, you can sign a petition to make July 20 a national holiday.