Conference participants wanted more solutions. We identified some, but we have a long way to go.
Perhaps the most significant outcome was the gathering itself. The STEM community is wide and deep, reflecting the nature of the problem. It encompasses everyone from corporate CEOs to inner city community organizers; preschool teachers to literal rocket scientists. Speakers included basketball great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who tells children to forget sports and study math, and inventor Dean Kamen, who’s helping hundreds of thousands of school kids build robots—that shoot basketballs. Community college presidents and the deans of prestigious engineering schools listened to executives at companies like AT&T and Boeing explain the kind of skills they require to fill the tens of thousands of jobs they have open right now. Top officials from the National Science Foundation, NASA, and major universities made clear to K-12 school superintendents why more math for more students—particularly Hispanics, African-Americans, and, amazingly, an enormous percentage of young girls—was a make-or-break proposition for success. No one came away doubting that mastering fractions in middle school and algebra by freshman year was essential to a child’s success in the workplace of the future. STEM is not really about the rocket scientists, although a few more would never hurt. It’s really about the middle class. It’s less about the folks who design the airplanes than the ones who build them. The guys who used to pour the steel now have to know how to program and instruct a robot to do it.
The next most significant outcome of the event was the realization of a shortcoming. Everyone in the room understood the problem, but 99 percent of the rest of the country would hardly have known what we were talking about. Creating public awareness, informing parents about why this kind of education is so crucial, and finding ways to make students want to do their math homework rather than dread it is a major missing link. Only consumer demand is going to drive the kind of change that’s needed, whether it’s better math teachers or better software to teach math. The STEM brand is in trouble. It’s a hard sell. But would anyone agree that the world will become less technological? That good jobs will become less sophisticated?
Those are clearly questions that much of the world has been answering aggressively. The STEM problem in the United States is most clear when viewed against the gap we see between our high school students and those in China, South Korea, and much of Europe. Or the huge volume of mid-level engineers being produced by a place like India. “We’ve invested nearly a billion dollars,” said AT&T’s John Donovan of their education program, “because we need a continual supply of smart, skilled workers in our increasingly competitive workplace.” U.S. companies are seeing this need more clearly than the education establishment. “Decline is a choice, it’s not a fate,” said Wes Bush, CEO of Northrop Grumman.
The corporate role is crucial. The STEM jobs problem is a case where demand must lead supply. Employers must communicate with a fragmented education system about the skills they need in their workers, now and in the future. Educators, the smart ones, are going to have to follow that lead. In Dallas, there was much evidence of that beginning to happen.
Where it’s taking place is mostly on a state or regional level. Local employers are partnering with universities and community colleges to reshape courses and create hands-on internships that turn into jobs. Northrop Grumman and the University of Maryland created a specialized program in cybersecurity; the Business-Higher Education Forum, which pairs CEOs with college presidents, discussed the successful partnerships they have created in St. Louis and Louisville, Ky. Everyone agreed that the next step was to scale up these efforts.