Several studies have reported that during the next 10 years, there will be millions of open jobs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields – also known as STEM – and not enough educated workers to fill those positions.
President Barack Obama has said on several occasions that the nation's educational system needs to make a greater push to train students to have the necessary skills to pursue careers in these fields. But as many states are facing severe budget cuts and are struggling to adjust to new educational standards, such as the Common Core State Standards and the Next Generation Science Standards, more companies, foundations and nonprofit organizations are partnering with schools and communities to provide more opportunities for students.
The Intel Foundation, for example, is an organization founded in 1988 that funds annual competitions and science fairs that encourage innovation in STEM education and provide a venue for students to showcase their accomplishments. The international events together host more than 7 million students from 80 countries around the world.
Wendy Hawkins, executive director of the foundation, sat down with U.S. News to talk about the state of STEM education and what progress still needs to be made. Below is an edited transcript of the conversation.
What are some issues facing the progression of STEM education in the United States?
What's been really fascinating to me is, here in the United States, we do a lot of breast-beating about how terribly we're doing on [international] tests and that our students are, in fact, losing interest in STEM careers. But when I go to countries that we use as the shining examples of what we should be more like ... they're just as worried as we are. They're seeing that same drop-off in interest. They're concerned that in many of the cases, China in particular, that they're teaching their students to do well on the tests but they're not teaching them to be innovators. They don't have any Nobel Laureates, they don't develop the new ideas, and so they're very eager for figuring out what we do in the United States that's different.
They keep looking at us and saying, "You're the ones that have the highest numbers of patents, you're the ones with the Nobel Laureates, you're the ones with the invention and Silicon Valley, and how do we get that?" Frankly, I don't think we know how we have that. And I don't think we know what our secret sauce is, but there are things about entrepreneurship, and there are things about curiosity. So figuring out what that secret sauce is and making sure that we don't kill it, whatever it is that we do, then we can nurture it and spread it all the better.
How has the landscape of STEM education changed in the United States?
I really am enthusiastic about an underlying sense that we need to spend less time doing that little, thin, inch-deep, mile-wide, learn everything a little bit, and instead dive deeper. What we have seen through these science competitions, is that kids really engage when they have the chance to choose what it is that they really want to pursue. That has a really profound difference and I think it really shapes brains and it shapes thinking, as well as developing enthusiasm and really a much much deeper understanding of the subject. I think that makes a really profound difference in their long-term commitment and enthusiasm, as well as what they actually learn and can draw upon in years to come.
When you go into schools and look at what's actually happening on the ground, there's still a huge gap: that schools don't have the schedules that allow teachers to do hands-on experiments. That takes time. In many cases ... they don't have the equipment or the space that you could do that kind of work in.
We talk a lot more about STEM education than most schools really have the capability of delivering, and we've got a real gap in terms of teacher skills too. Most teachers don't know science well enough to feel really comfortable enough when their students go off in a [different] direction. All of those are challenges that we need to be doing a better job as a nation.
Would starting STEM education at an earlier age help engage students more in the long run?
There's no better scientist in the world than a four-year-old. They approach life as an experiment, and everything is new: "How does that work? Why does that leaf look like that? Why does that animal live that way?" They're wildly enthusiastic scientists and we know from real data that you put kids in school and every year they're in school, their enthusiasm for science and their vision of themselves as scientists goes down. There's something broken there. The very youngest children should be treated and taught as if they are, in fact, experimentalists, as scientists, and that should be the best part of their school day.
But most teachers, especially at the elementary school level, are not comfortable teaching science as a subject; it's not their sweet spot. So making sure teachers are supported, and given the resources and the training ... is an important first step.
What are some of the barriers women and underserved minorities face, and what are some of the things you're doing to address those?
One of the things we've been scratching our heads over to a certain extent is the role of women in science. You look at those two [Intel] competitions and women are pretty close to parity. We get 47 to 48 percent, so slightly less, but nothing dramatic that would explain the kind of disparity that you see in careers, when you're seeing 20 percent showing up as engineers and computer scientists. The young women are clearly talented, clearly able, so what exactly is the barrier and what are the things that we could do that would change that?
And underrepresented minorities do not show up in any significant numbers at these competitions, and there's a real difference in what the barriers are between women and science careers and underrepresented minorities and science careers. They're not well-prepared by our K-12 system and the young women clearly are, they're clearly equally as prepared, if not even better prepared than the boys are. So it's something about the choice of pursing that career that's really the barrier for them, whereas the underrepresented minorities it's much more about preparation.
We've recently begun working with the National Council for Women in Technology (NCWIT). They identify a cohort of maybe a dozen girls in each state around the country each year and stay with them all the way through their graduation from college. If you look at girls who enter college and think they want to be an engineer or computer scientist, you lose 50 percent of them freshman year on average, and by the time they graduate, you lose another half of them. So you're down to only 25 percent of them that actually graduate. In contrast, NCWIT gets 98 percent of them all the way through with a degree. And 25 to 50 percent actually go on to graduate school. They pay attention, they make sure they get mentors ... they help them find internships when they're in college, they actually encourage them to do research – all the things that we know work.
We talk a lot about higher education and encourage students to pursue advanced degrees, but what role does the community college play in STEM education?
Is there a gap and a need for people with technical skills at the community college technician kind of level? Absolutely. And do community colleges play a significant role in helping to produce the engineers that go on and get degrees from four-year colleges and beyond? Absolutely. It's much more cost effective and gives a lot of kids who wouldn't be ready to go off to four-year college that bridge time to make up any deficits that they have, to bring their skills up to the level where they're ready to enter the second half of a full-on engineering program. So whether the need is financial, being able to live at home, or maybe a need for an extra year of bridge time, the community college plays a critical role.
And goodness knows there are plenty of technical jobs that are really hard to fill at that community college level as well. I think that we as a country have neglected those kinds of careers. Shop classes don't exist anymore. The kinds of hands-on teaching and the ability to even learn what those careers might be, or what they look like today [is] not available. To be an auto repair person is a much more technically challenging role than it was when I went through school. There are a lot of jobs that are good, solid, well-paying jobs that do require more than just graduating from high school and working out at your local garage. But they're looking for people who actually have some technical training.
What are the next steps that need to be taken to improve STEM education?
Making the Common Core and Next Generation Science standards be what they were intended to be, and really implementing those well, is critical. And that's a huge task. We can't set that aside because there's still a lot of work to be done there. In schools, to begin to reinvest in the kind of infrastructure that allows for the time, the collaboration, and the facilities and space that it actually takes to do science. I think that's a critical need here in this country to make sure that teachers can teach science, that kids have the place to learn science, and that everybody has the time to do science, which is messy and you have to set it up and clean it up and all those things. [We need to make] those attitudinal changes ... and [begin] to chip away at attitudes that get in the way of kids believing that they can or would want to do this.