The weak performance by the United States in STEM fields can seem like a purely educational problem—schools simply aren't producing enough budding mathematicians and software engineers. There is a case to be made, however, that a dearth of STEM scholars is a symptom of much broader national, cultural shortcomings.
At least, that's the way that some experts see it. One is Rick Stephens, senior vice president of human resources and administration at aerospace company Boeing. At the U.S. News Stem Summit 2012, Stephens described a 50-year decline in U.S. STEM performance, and he pointed to a fundamental problem: students are not being taught in the "real world."
"How did we win going to the moon?" he asked. While only three people walked on the moon, he pointed out, "It took 3 million people to make that happen." And he added those very technologically proficient people lived in a world that was less saturated with high-tech gadgets than today's. "The fact is, most of the 3 million people who took us to the moon came off the farms where there was real work and real problems to solve," he said.
In a speech that touched on a variety of societal ills like obesity, illiteracy, and children who are glued to the TV set, Stephens proposed solutions to helping schools to produce more STEM-capable graduates—in particular, get kids out of the classroom and out of the house. For example, he proposes that college STEM students be taught via real-world scenarios, and that parents of younger children help their kids to have learning experiences that do not involve computers and electronic games.
It's not just that Stephens and his employer care about making America's kids slimmer or smarter. For Boeing and countless other American firms, having STEM-proficient students is a path to finding job candidates and improving profits—a notion that is particularly relevant during a prolonged downturn.
While there is some dispute among economists about exactly how widespread and how deep the American skills gap is, individual firms face a pressing need for STEM-proficient workers.
AT&T needs a "continuous supply" of these workers, noted John Donovan, senior executive vice president at AT&T technology and network operations. And American schools simply aren't producing them, he noted.
"Only 32 percent of U.S. and private school students in the class of 2011 are deemed proficient in mathematics," he said.
Producing more graduates who are proficient in fields like math and technology may, ironically, involve tearing them away from their technology.