Meeting the STEM Challenge

Improving STEM education must be a national priority.

Lecture hall,

American educational attainment is stagnant.

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The best schools in America are a full two years behind their Chinese counterparts in math, according to a major new international educational assessment.

The Programme for International Student Assessment is one of the most thorough school surveys in the world. It measures major subject matter achievement for 15-year-olds in 65 countries, which combined represent 80 percent of the global economy.

Sadly, America’s PISA results in math are dismal. In the latest results released recently, our students put up below-average scores, coming in 26th internationally. Students in a host of nations, including much smaller countries like Hungary, Lithuania and the Slovak Republic, outperform our own. And we are far behind No. 1-ranked Shanghai.

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But while American educational achievement stagnates on this front, our economy continues to produce jobs that depend on math, along with science, technology and engineering – the STEM fields, as they are collectively known.  STEM employment growth is outpacing the general economy by about 300 percent. And, over the next five years, the United States is expected to add as many as 1.3 million new STEM jobs. And these positions aren’t just plentiful – they also pay well. In the United States, the average professional with a STEM degree earns about $78,000 annually – compared to the annual average wage for Americans of approximately $43,000. However, as these new PISA results make all too clear, we simply aren’t producing the caliber of students needed to take these positions. And if current trends hold, it’s estimated that nearly a third of domestic STEM jobs could go unfilled.

Despite the national unemployment rate of 6.6 percent, millions of STEM positions remain vacant because there aren’t enough qualified applicants to fill them. The American manufacturing sector alone has reported 600,000 unfilled positions because firms cannot find people with the necessary advanced STEM subspecialty skills.  If the nation’s manufacturers can’t find the workers they need, then neither can our national security system.

At the same time, other countries are producing graduates who can fill the jobs of the future. In 2008, 31 percent of bachelor’s degrees in China were awarded in engineering, compared to a mere 4 percent in the United States. This is a daunting comparison to consider, particularly as the U.S. prepares to celebrate National Engineers Week. If we do not change course, then we will lose out on these STEM jobs – and our ability to drive future innovation – to our better-educated international competitors, relegating America to economic mediocrity and jeopardizing our national security.

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Improving STEM education must be a national priority. That means ensuring that American students from all backgrounds receive robust instruction in math and science in elementary and middle school, in-depth exposure to disciplines like physics and chemistry in high school, and profession-oriented specialization at the college and graduate levels.

In the classroom, educators should be striving to instill a passion for math and science early. What’s driven many of the amazing advancements of the past is a simple, intoxicating curiosity – an eagerness to know how something works, figure it out, and then translate the findings into innovative new products and services. Connecting the dots between the formulas on the chalkboard and today’s students’ phones, video games or skateboards can spark and sustain the kind of curiosity that fuels a career.

President Obama’s plan to reward schools that develop new partnerships with colleges and employers is particularly promising. So is the Common Core State Standards Initiative, an effort to make state education curricula more uniform. Already adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia, it sets rigorous expectations for all students in math and English.

But public officials and school administrators can’t tackle the STEM education problem on their own. The American business community must contribute. Private expertise and resources should be marshaled as part of the solution.

To start, businesses need to direct more philanthropic support to science- and math-oriented education programs. They should also encourage their employees to volunteer for STEM-related community outreach programs.

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And private industry should support government initiatives like US2020. Created by the White House, this program aims to mobilize 1 million mentors in STEM subjects by 2020 by connecting public schools with professional networks. Here at Raytheon, we developed a national initiative called MathMovesU eight years ago to engage students with math and science. Working with strategic partners and through activities like a build-your-own roller coaster thrill ride at Walt Disney World, our goal is to speak to kids on their terms. With FIRST Robotics and Team America Rocketry Challenge, we work with students to design and build their own robots and rockets.

With our international traveling museum exhibit, MathAlive!, we’re showing children the math behind sports, video games and other everyday activities. We see the impact this kind of connection can have. We know that generating childhood wonder and excitement works in engaging young minds. We have to build off these initial sparks and create momentum that will result in STEM distinction among the next generation.

Corporate America must work together with educators and policymakers to cultivate the STEM workers needed to fuel innovation and ensure global competitiveness. Our nation’s economic future depends on it.