In Sputnik Moment for STEM, U.S. Must Train More, Better Teachers

Partnership's aim is to train 100,000 inspired and inspiring teachers over the next 10 years.

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Houston, we have a problem. America's well-traveled path of excellence in science, technology, engineering, and math--which put a man on the moon, led the biotechnology revolution, and transformed the way the world connects and communicates--is no longer leading us where we need to go. Education in these fields, known collectively as the STEM subjects, is not adequately preparing today's students to solve our most pressing challenges and extend our rich history of success and global leadership through the 21st century.

And yet we are a country bursting with creativity and ingenuity. The most globally recognized names in STEM achievement and education are American-born companies and institutions.

[Many STEM Teachers Don't Hold Qualifications]

Imagine how ingeniously America could meet the challenge of inspiring and preparing students for meaningful jobs that will keep our economy strong if, say, Google, NASA, and Teach for America were to put their heads together and come up with some solutions.

Luckily, that's exactly what's happening. These powerhouse organizations, along with more than 100 other institutions committed to accelerating STEM learning--from federal agencies to states, museums to universities, teacher residencies to school districts, nonprofits to foundations and corporations--have responded to a national call to action.

To encourage more girls and boys to see that they may one day cure diseases, or design renewable energy systems, President Barack Obama has called upon the U.S. to identify, cultivate, and retain 100,000 excellent STEM teachers over the next 10 years with the passion and knowledge to inspire and prepare young people.

Under the umbrella of 100Kin10, a partnership launched last year by Carnegie Corp. of New York and Opportunity Equation, more than 100 organizations so far have made concrete commitments to reach the goal, with an emphasis on tapping into groundbreaking ideas and proven solutions, connecting the passionate problem-solvers behind them, and fostering the kinds of robust collaboration that can propel a new national movement to rival our post-Sputnik ambition.

Not a top-down directive, nor a coalition too loose to take collective action, nor even a persuasive academic petition, 100Kin10 is rooted in the conviction that the answers lie in the ingenuity of grassroots initiatives, the expertise of those committed to STEM learning, and the assets of existing institutions all over the country, from the largest tech corporations to the smallest classrooms. It invites organizations to take what they are uniquely good at doing and apply their expertise and resources creatively to the shared goal of 100,000 excellent STEM teachers by 2021.

What's especially innovative about 100Kin10 is that it recognizes that just getting a lot of smart, committed people working together toward one goal is not enough to succeed, especially at solving a systemic problem that's national in scale and decades in the making. While like-minded professionals have always been able to share ideas at conferences and learn from final reports and assessments, 100Kin10 set up a partnership with the University of Chicago and created tools to allow these participants to have sustained communication in real time about what works and what doesn't, and identify how they can help one another fill in the gaps in their work as needs arise.

[STEM and Teachers: The Critical Link]

It is building a deliberate, carefully crafted framework for ensuring that the data and expertise of each partner is collected, organized, and shared in a way and at a pace that makes the individual initiatives stronger and their collective power unstoppable. And $24 million has been pledged thus far by 15 funders to support the 100Kin10 partners' work. To ensure that the funds support the worthiest projects, all potential commitments are vetted by a University of Chicago team of experts. On top of that, the fund itself is designed to maximize the chances of success, since money goes only to those organizations that the funders believe are doing the best work.

By creating a way for large-scale collaboration to happen more effectively, 100Kin10 is accelerating the rate of change and creating a model for how to solve the knotty problems that are demanding our intervention in this century. The partners, many of them innovators by nature, are taking talents well honed in STEM professions, education reform, and institutional leadership, applying them to social change, and setting a new standard for how we solve our greatest challenges.

As Obama pointed out during his 2012 State of the Union address, thousands of jobs requiring technical skills remain vacant because we simply are not training enough U.S. workers with the expertise and knowledge to fill them--from advanced manufacturing and renewable energy to pharmaceuticals and film and video game special effects. In the Sputnik era, the country rallied around a single objective: win the space race. Our mission today is not so simple. We must prepare students in fields that did not even exist in the 1950s, such as bioinformatics, nanotechnology, and software engineering. Our young people will need to answer questions that are complex and as-yet unknown.

So we must rekindle America's commitment to excellence in education in the subjects that will drive the 21st century economy. And to do it we must recognize that the very way we problem-solve has met its Sputnik moment.

  • Middle School STEM Scores Edge Up, But Experts Want More
  • Carnegie Launches Open-Source STEM Network
  • U.S. News STEM Education Center