DALLAS--Improving STEM education in the U.S. is not necessarily a matter of sending more students to Stanford or MIT. Inspiring even a few more students to go a few miles to the nearest community college could be enough to boost STEM-educated people into the workforce, says Uri Treisman, professor of mathematics at the University of Texas-Austin.
"A 10, 15 percent increase in [STEM degree] completion would solve our national problem," he said, speaking at the 2012 U.S. News STEM Solutions Summit.
Community colleges are an integral piece of improving the U.S. STEM landscape, said experts at the conference, but it means forging strong connections with both high schools and businesses.
Treisman said that higher education institutions and secondary schools need to together have a better understanding of what defines "college readiness," so that high schools know what is expected of their students when they graduate—not to mention so that students are prepared for college-level courses when they get there.
"There are massive disconnects between high schools programs and higher ed programs," he said.
Colleges need to look beyond not only where students are coming from but where they are going, said Peggy Walton, senior director of workforce readiness at Corporate Voices for Working Families. Even the lowest jobs on the totem pole require basic STEM skills, she said.
"If workers are not coming in tech savvy with an understanding of sci method, being able to think, if they don't have those kinds of skills, they're not going to be successful in the workplace," she said.
Community colleges can help to provide those skills, and in some cases can help graduates to move into high-paying, secure jobs—but they first need to understand workforce needs.
Edwin Massey, president of Indian River State College in Florida, said that his school established a Regional Center for Nuclear Education and Training (RC-NET) with the knowledge that the nation has a need for 41,000 skilled nuclear employees by 2030. Getting two years of training at RC-NET can move students into jobs that pay $100,000 per year, he said.
But these partnerships must be two-way, said V. Celeste Carter, program director in the division of undergraduate education at the National Science Foundation. She believes that industries need to help community colleges to make more transferable, widely useful certification and degree programs, so that students have more workforce mobility.
If a student gets an associate's degree or certification in Florida, she said, "How does an industry in New Mexico know that that's really a validated certificate that they would accept?"
"Let's create some things that are industry-validated," she added.