Experts: STEM Education Is All About Jobs

Experts spar about STEM education at U.S. News's Making Science Cool event.

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One thing was clear at Tuesday's science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education summit hosted by U.S. News—improving science and math educational achievement is about jobs. Lots of them.

"There's no more important issue in America," U.S. News Chairman Mortimer Zuckerman said.

[Read Zuckerman's column about why STEM is important in the job market.]

Thought leaders, former politicians, and business executives met today at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., to discuss the STEM education crisis at U.S. News's Making Science Cool: Solving the Shortage of Math and Science Students event this morning. The event coincided with the release of U.S. News's inaugural rankings of the best high schools for math and science.

As America faces a 9 percent unemployment rate, it was clear to panelists that the answer to that problem lies in training a more skilled workforce. Many science and technology companies are struggling to find qualified American citizens to fill STEM-related job openings.

"We worry about jobs that are unfilled—if you can't find the talent here and you're competing globally, what's the answer?" said John Engler, the Business Roundtable president and former governor of Michigan. "You'll have to go somewhere else in the world where that talent is. How will that help the U.S. economy?" He called improving STEM achievement a "moral and economic imperative."

Large companies have been throwing money at the problem in hopes of sparking student interest in science and math, but fashion designer and businessman Marc Ecko and Change the Equation CEO Linda Rosen expressed frustration with lackluster results and the extensive red tape surrounding education reform.

[Learn more about Change the Equation.]

"I've spent a lot of my income trying to fight this fight," Ecko said. Building new curricula, even if they work, has so far been a wasted cause because schools are hesitant or unable to implement them in the classroom, he said. "It's like building the ultimate Dyson vacuum and not having a shelf to sell it on. You know what [our curriculum] becomes? It becomes a nice after-school program."

He said schools and policymakers need to keep up with the quickly changing technological landscape and become more willing to try new things, or the money might dry up.

"Philanthropy and the private sector, there's only so much tolerance they have to keep banging their head into the wall over and over again," he continued. "There's a certain point that the folks on the ground at a local level have to start being less xenophobic. [They say] 'Oh, my kids are good, those kids are the problem,' [The problem is] all of us, folks."

Rosen was more diplomatic but expressed similar sentiments. Her organization is a consortium of more than 100 CEOs who want to spend their money more effectively on quality STEM programs.

"The corporate community has been very generous in their philanthropy. They are frustrated. There's a lot of money, and not lots of results," she said. She pointed out that there are hundreds of organizations focusing on improving STEM achievement, but "you have to assume that not all the programs are equally effective, because the needle hasn't moved sufficiently."

The panelists all agreed on one thing: the importance of improving students' achievement in the field.

Despite the event's name: Making Science Cool, Ecko said the subject doesn't have an image issue—it's simply difficult to get students excited about learning the content. "Kids know science is sufficiently cool. We all saw Star Wars," he said.

While science may be cool, math is another story, according to Tom Luce, former CEO of the National Math and Science Initiative.

"Nobody would say, 'I can't read,' but we feel OK in saying we can't balance our checkbook. We need to get across that we need a STEM-literate population," he said. Luce said that today's equivalent of an auto manufacturing job—a family-supporting job—is working in chip manufacturing at Intel. "Everybody needs to be proficient in algebra if you're going to hold a living-wage job. We need to talk about that. We need to convince the entire country that every child must conquer algebra II."

[Learn more about the STEM teacher shortage.]

The panel continually hit on the fact that many of the STEM-related job openings don't require advanced degrees, but merely require specialized training at a community college or technical school. Gaston Caperton, former West Virginia governor and current president of the College Board, said America's ability to compete against other global leaders will depend on its ability to improve STEM education achievement.

"This is a century that will be defined by our greatest innovators," he said. "The challenge isn't to have the most scientists, it's to have the most creative scientists." But one thing is clear—for every chemist or engineer, there are several technician jobs open to people without advanced degrees.

Academic representatives, including Louisiana State University math professor Scott Baldridge, Massachusetts Institute of Technology research scientist Felice Frankel, and True North Troy Preparatory Charter School Principal Paul Powell said they've had success in solving small pieces of the puzzle.

At True North Troy, Powell videotapes successful teachers, then goes over the "game footage" with new teachers to see what works. In Frankel's lab, design students work together with science students to create new products, and at LSU, students pursuing math and science degrees can graduate with a bachelor of science and a teaching certificate, which can help cut down on the number of teachers teaching out of subject area.

Engler summed up the day when he said America needs to show students the job opportunities out there and engage them in STEM.

"I think this country has got a lot of talent on the sidelines," he said. "We have a lot of talent walking around on the street that we need to capture."

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