One of the most astute synopses of the state of science, technology, engineering and mathematics education in the United States came in a 500-word feature earlier this year from the ever-careful chronicler of our day: the Onion. The piece, headlined "Report: Chinese Third-Graders Falling Behind U.S. High School Students in Math, Science," explained how stunning new – and fictional – results from international exams demonstrated "that in mathematical and scientific literacy, American students from the ages of 14 to 18 have now actually pulled slightly ahead of their 8-year-old Chinese counterparts."
In truth, 15-year-olds in the United States rank 25th in math and 17th in science among their peers in other industrialized countries – students in Shanghai and Hong Kong are in the top five in each discipline – according to the most recent data from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Many educators, corporate leaders, government officials, and other voices see these figures and similar middling marks as just one alarming piece among many that illustrate the central thesis of the STEM crisis in the United States: Students are lagging behind and turning away from science and math, while jobs in these fields are projected to grow some 1.7 times as fast as other jobs and companies are struggling to find skilled workers to fill the posts that already exist.
For years, the data have been mounting, with recent evidence emerging all the time to paint a richer picture of STEM. An analysis released June 10 from the Brookings Institution, for instance, found that STEM jobs in the United States comprise close to one-fifth of all occupations, and half of them don't require a four-year college degree. Newly minted computer science and engineering graduates make at least $5,000 more on average than those in any other field, said an April survey from the National Association of Colleges and Employers. Yet fewer than 4 in 10 students who begin college intent on majoring in a STEM subject complete a degree in the field, according to the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.
At the core of the STEM issue are education and jobs, the two parts of the STEM pipeline. Aligning the two is the central challenge. One year ago, U.S. News & World Report threw its hat in the ring to try to address the problem and convened STEM Solutions, an inaugural gathering of more than 1,600 people coming together in Dallas to propose and pinpoint solutions surrounding STEM education, jobs and public awareness. In attendance were college presidents and professors, corporate CEOs and hiring professionals, K-12 educators and administrators, reporters and state STEM supervisors, and many more from across the country who shared their insight at this "first national meeting of this grass-roots movement," said Microsoft Executive Vice President Brad Smith at the opening of the conference.
This year, at the encore in Austin, Texas, which runs June 17-19, the mission is the same and the theme is a call to action: Teach, Inspire, Hire. And, of course, the overall project is unending, with more STEM events to come and continued coverage on our page at www.usnews.com/stem.
Thirty years ago, a team of educators, officials and others commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education released the landmark "Nation at Risk" report, which even then provided a precursor to many of the alarm bells being sounded today: Scores in high school science were steadily declining; some international students spend several times more class hours on STEM subjects than those in the U.S.; there was already a "severe" shortage of math and science teachers, and many weren't qualified. "History is not kind to idlers," the authors warned.
Today, educators around the country aren't exactly sitting in neutral. Rather, classrooms at every level are being transformed with the advent of new K-12 education standards, teaching requirements and technologies. April saw the release of the Next Generation Science Standards, based on revised frameworks from the National Research Council, which proponents say are a much-needed revamp of K-12 science education practices and expectations. Twenty-six states were on board for their development, and states will soon begin adopting and incorporating them into their schools. In late May, Rhode Island became the first state to adopt them, with Kentucky and Kansas following suit soon after.