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.
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.
To that end, one major outcome was the launching of STEMx, a national network that acts as a clearinghouse to share the work being done on a state level between businesses, educators, and governments. Managed by the Battelle Corp., the network launched with 11 states including North Carolina, Ohio, Washington, and Texas, and more are coming on board. The state networks are forging relationships between business, industry, and schools from pre-K to graduate programs. The objective is to put the best thinking behind the design of in-school and out-of-school programs to create better teachers and encourage more students to pursue math and science fields.
The sweep of industries affected by the STEM skills shortage was revealing, from healthcare, energy production and distribution, and autos to the whole slowly renewing domestic manufacturing area, transportation, and agriculture. “There are no more jobs that require a strong back,” said Tom Luce, the force behind the successful National Math and Science Initiative. “We have to explain to parents and kids that 30 years ago you could have a living wage job and not be STEM capable. Today that is not possible.”
It would be naive to try to oversimplify this intricate problem. But there are some clear next steps. Broader public awareness is crucial. Public demand for better education and jobs information will drive behavior at all levels. Creating a message that resonates is essential. The brand marketers have to step forward. “Just Do the Math” might work if a certain shoe company doesn’t mind. “Math Means Money” could have a catchy beat.
The talented students dropping out of ill-conceived university science programs is an immediate fix. “We at universities have to look in the mirror and agree that we can do a better job of supporting our students so that if we tell them they can come into engineering, they’ve got a good shot at making it in engineering,” said Freeman Hrabowski, head of the University of Maryland–Baltimore County.
In K-12, teachers are crucial, but minting many thousands in the next few years won’t happen. Technology is likely the missing ingredient based on evidence that there are better ways to learn. Getting the good teachers to amplify their skills is the only solution; you can’t mass produce enough to meet the need.
Some communities get it. U.S. News’s ranking of Best STEM High Schools shows that folks in high-income zip codes like Palo Alto, Calif., Westchester, N.Y., and the Washington, D.C., suburbs have the right schools. Success is possible anywhere: Magnet and charter schools all over the country perform well. But there aren’t nearly enough schools on our list. “The fact that it’s not being done for 55 million children is our fault,” said NMSI’s Luce. “That’s a lack of public will.”
Everyone agrees that we don’t have a choice. Unless it’s a choice to fail.
This story is based on the more than 100 U.S. News STEM Solutions 2012 conference speaker remarks, as well as the numerous sessions, reports, and surveys of the 50 co-chair organizations and 1,600 conference participants. Additional reporting was provided by the staffs of U.S. News, Southern Methodist University Department of Education, STEMconnector, and Innovate + Educate.