DALLAS—It doesn’t take a nuclear physicist to determine that the future of the United States depends heavily on science, technology, engineering, and math, but bolstering education and recruiting more workers in these fields is no easy feat. While experts have noted that at least half the growth in the U.S. gross domestic product over the last 50 years has been due to science and engineering, many say the United States is losing its competitive luster in the fields. The United States ranks 27th among developed countries in the proportion of college students earning bachelor’s degrees in science or engineering, according to a 2010 National Academies report. Mobilizing the STEM workforce requires considerable collaboration between the private and public sectors, careful communication about the importance of STEM, and changing the culture related to the fields, according to a panel of experts recognized for their contributions to STEM at U.S.News & World Report’s inaugural STEM Solutions 2012 Summit in Dallas last month.
Five experts from various fields were named to the first class of the U.S. News STEM Leadership Hall of Fame, as selected by a committee of industry, academic, and nonprofit sector leaders for their roles in advancing STEM. An awards ceremony followed several days of presentations, panels, and conversations—not to mention basketball-shooting and ribbon-cutting robots—in which nearly 2,000 educators, business leaders, policymakers, media professionals, and others came together to share ideas and proposals for improving STEM education and engagement.
According to the Hall of Fame members, strengthening STEM starts by working together—creating partnerships between educators and employers, corporations and government. “Let’s knock down the boundaries between public and private sectors,” said Freeman Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland–Baltimore County. That way, businesses can communicate exactly what they need in the STEM workforce, for instance, and schools can adjust their programs to incorporate more real-world applications for lessons in science and math.
Improving education is particularly critical, the experts agreed, to help more students see the value of STEM and engage with the topics throughout their lives. Certain specialized programs or charter schools may have found success improving student interest or engagement with STEM, but figuring out a model that works broadly is key. “We’ve got to focus on finding a few things that work and scale them across the country,” said Tom Luce, chairman of the nonprofit National Math + Science Initiative and former assistant secretary of education for planning, evaluation, and policy development. Advancing STEM also means revamping curricula and making sure that students who are interested in science and engineering maintain that interest, so they can become scientists and engineers. “Two thirds of those who begin with a major in those areas are not making it and we assume that’s OK,” said Hrabowski. Communicating the value of STEM to minority and underserved communities is also critical. “I see collaboration going on at the 30,000-foot level, but I don’t see collaboration at delivering to the schools that need it most,” says Ray Mellado, chairman and CEO of Great Minds in STEM, a Los Angeles-area nonprofit dedicated to advancing education for underserved students related to STEM fields.
In addition to engaging more students, improving STEM education also involves strengthening teacher training and support at all levels and motivating more qualified STEM graduates to become educators. The National Academies call for adding 10,000 new math and science teachers each year. “You can’t expect them to teach when they’re offered half what they would get somewhere else,” said Mary Good, special adviser to the chancellor for economic development at the University of Arkansas–Little Rock, where she was once a professor and dean of the Donaghey College of Engineering and Information Technology.
Improving contact with parents is also key, the Hall of Fame winners said, as well as increasing public awareness that STEM fields aren’t just dynamic and fun, but a vital interest. Without a serious commitment to STEM, “we are not going to have the standard of living that we had in the past,” said Good. “We’re to the point, in my opinion, where it’s the national security that is at risk.” Those implications mean more attention should be paid at the national level, with better communication among the government agencies that have a hand in STEM, the honorees said. “We’ve got to get to a results orientation at the government level, especially the federal level,” said Richard Alley, professor of geosciences at Penn State and host of the PBS television series EARTH: The Operators’ Manual. Thus, communicating the importance of STEM is a job for the media, individuals in science, and the public at large, who the Hall of Fame winners agreed should press political leaders to devote more attention and resources to STEM. “Everybody in this room has to communicate that STEM is not just for engineers and scientists,” said Luce. “This is about having a job in the 21st century.”
Even as the experts proposed a number of ways to address the critical need for STEM in the United States, they agreed that the challenges are daunting. Indeed, one of the best ways to start might be working to erase the stigma about STEM—that it’s too difficult, or only for geeks and nerds—and embrace it as a part of American culture. “If your kid is going to fly the fighter jet,” Alley said, “they’re going to do good in math first.”