Behind America's Decline in Math, Science and Technology

STEM symposium on Capitol Hill discusses how to bring back America's competitive edge.

Creative play can foster innovation.

STEM experts at a recent symposium on Capitol Hill said diversity is an important aspect of STEM education that needs to be addressed.

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America has fallen far from its place as a leader in math and science, experts said during a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) Diversity Symposium on Capitol Hill on Wednesday.

"International comparisons place the U.S. in the middle of the pack globally," said Debbie Myers, general manager of Discovery Communications. Myers said in order for the U.S. to compete in the global market, we need to a do a better job of inspiring children to develop that desire for discovery and encourage minorities and girls especially to get involved in STEM.

For both students and up-and-coming professionals, tests and studies continue to confirm that the U.S. is losing its competitive edge when it comes to math, technology and science. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which surveyed more than 150,000 people age 16 to 65 in 24 different countries, America's results for literacy were disappointing, but mathematics and problem solving proved to be especially embarrassing for a nation that has formerly reigned as a leader of innovation and technology. The U.S. ranked 21 out of 23 countries in math and 17 out of 19 countries in problem solving in the October study.

In fact, the Wall Street Journal reports that the majority of graduate students studying science and technology at American universities are not Americans, but Chinese and South Koreans.

Edie Fraser, director of STEMconnector.org, indicated at the symposium that the future of jobs lie in the fields of math and science, making it all the more urgent for younger generations to embrace these subjects.

Because of a lack of qualified workers, "2.5 million STEM jobs aren't being filled," Fraser said. Computer sciences will be espeically important in the future, she added. "Seventy-one percent of new jobs are going to be computer related in every field," she said.

Speakers at the symposium were clear about the country's need to cultivate capable and brilliant minds, not just to create a better tomorrow, but to survive tomorrow.

[READ: Intel Foundation Changing Attitudes is Key in STEM Education]

But the question remains: How does the nation go about creating these innovators and geniuses that are passionate about math and science?

Grant Imahara, Discovery Channel's "Myth Busters" personality and a USC engineering graduate, believes the answer to that question is: rock stars.

"We need rock stars. In the 60s astronauts were rock stars," Imahara said. "Everyone wanted to be an astronaut." Imahara said that by bringing back the esteem and awe of the scientific community and scientific discoveries, kids will develop a passion and desire to learn more about these subjects.

He also said that it was important to narrow the disconnect between the learning process and the ultimate possibilities of careers paths people can have once they finish school.

"What you need to have is that link between your education and what you do. Make creativity part of the subject," Imahara continued.

Another possible solution: "Empower our teachers to be able to show kids that STEM is fun," suggested Cindy Moss, director of Global STEM Initiatives. She explained that by improving the education and training that science and math teachers receive, in turn they would enhance the methods and activities they use to teach students, leading to an exponential increase of interest in STEM education.

Mentors are also an important component to success in STEM education.

"Everyone who has a position in STEM needs to be prepared to be a mentor," guest panelist and NASA astrobiologist and geologist Dr. Jennifer Eigenbrode said, sharing how her own mentors helped her achieve her professional goals.

Others said the best way to draw students into STEM is by reducing the financial burden that comes with studying these subjects.

"What we need to do today is figure out how we can get folks into school where they don't have to worry about student loans, and don't graduate with thousands and thousands of dollars in debt," said Anne Sandel, executive director of surface warfare for the U.S. Department of Defense.



Corrected, 11/14/13: An earlier version of this article misidentified Edie Fraser. She is the director of STEMconnector.org.