A year ago, U.S.News & World Report launched a special project to examine the problem of why, at a time of high unemployment, there are so many jobs going unfilled. The answer: American workers lack the necessary skills for those jobs. We came to summarize this as the STEM problem and called our project “STEM Solutions.” STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and math, and it is the lack of skills in those subject areas that is behind many of the nation’s vacant jobs today—and the prospect of considerably more in the next few years.
As we learned more about the importance and complexity of this issue, we decided to move beyond just reporting on it and play a role as an information resource for both policymakers looking for solutions to a significant national problem and consumers seeking educational skills that will land them a good job. One key need that became apparent was the lack of a national forum for the many committed groups that are working in this field. We hosted that meeting this summer in Dallas, bringing together 1,600 people representing hundreds of organizations. It turned out to be a unique gathering of a surprisingly broad community of leading educators, corporate and nonprofit executives, and government officials who realize the urgency of making progress on an issue that is at the heart of America’s economic future.
“This, I believe, is a genuine grass-roots movement,” said Microsoft Executive Vice President Brad Smith at the opening of the event. “And in a sense this is the first national meeting of this grass-roots movement.”
The outcomes of the three days of workshops and discussions at STEM Solutions 2012 make up a kind of State of STEM: what’s working and what’s not. What follows is a summary of the most important takeaways. In addition, we’re publishing speeches, videos, and other material from the conference at usnews.com. They will be part of a growing archive as we hold other events and release new reports in the months to come, leading up to STEM Solutions 2013 next June in Austin. Based on the dozens of presentations and feedback from participants, here are the conclusions, and the unfinished business:
- STEM is as much about jobs as education. It’s about middle-class jobs, many of which don’t require bachelor’s degrees.
- Overall, STEM education is getting worse, not better. At the college level, too many capable students are being washed out of STEM majors. Better teaching methods could increase retention and create 30,000 more engineers in four years. Some schools are showing how to do it; all schools need to follow.
- Community colleges are an undervalued resource offering the potential to help many students through skills-based learning tied to jobs. However, they inherit too many high school graduates in need of remedial help and face continued government funding cuts. Cooperation with local businesses has been successful for some schools.
- For K-12 students, it’s about doing your math homework. Math is the single most important subject for student success. Students who don’t master Algebra I by freshman year will have bleak prospects of getting a decent job.
- Women, Hispanics, and African- Americans are the biggest challenge and the biggest opportunity: Often for cultural reasons, they are underrepresented in many STEM areas, yet they make up the bulk of the future workforce. Mentor programs have helped change perceptions of STEM careers.
- Hands-on learning that links math and science to the real world works best for all students. Online learning and other new technologies show promise but have to be refined and vetted. Combining good teachers with technology may be the game changer.
- There is a severe shortage of qualified math teachers. The most successful teachers are the ones who were trained the same way they teach: by making math and science real-life, hands-on.
- There are many more kids who would like to go into STEM careers than generally recognized, but they aren’t properly prepared and mostly drop out.
- We have many good examples of schools and programs that succeed, but no consensus on which ones to focus on and scale up to reach all 55 million public school students. Corporations and philanthropies are anxious to find better measures of success.
- STEM is a subset of the whole unresolved education reform problem of standards, outcomes, and teacher performance; it’s just that STEM performance is more easily measurable. You either master a given level of math, or you don’t. The new, state-approved Common Core Math and Science Standards are viewed as a very important tool to promote and measure improvement, but there is concern that they will not be fully implemented by many states.
- STEM is a national problem with local and regional solutions. Some argue that it is also a national security problem.
- Businesses must be engaged in helping influence the education system for their own good; they need the workers. Schools must listen to the needs of employers. Education must be aligned to workforce needs. Business-school ties that involve apprenticeships and co-op learning that result in real jobs are demonstrating success.
- Structured partnerships involving all parts of a community are essential and have been shown to work. Progressive states are encouraging and managing these. Several organizations are scaling state and local efforts by tying them into a national network.
- The federal government has not been much of a factor. There needs to be a bigger federal role to focus and organize state and private efforts. The key short-term wish of many companies is for Congress to allow highly skilled foreign students to remain in the United States and fill positions that will then, in turn, create more jobs.
- Parents should be aware of why STEM matters to them and their kids. There is no consistency to the various corporate and philanthropic messages about why STEM is important. STEM should be marketed as a path to better paying jobs and career stability. Math means money. Parents need to take more responsibility for their children’s education.
- Consumers—parents, students, and those already in the workforce—need better information to connect education choices to career options, including job-search data based on skills.