Science and engineering professions require rigorous data collection and risk analysis. That same approach needs to be applied to STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education with respect to forecasting job prospects for students today.
We need to see STEM as a foundation for all of education, not solely as a vocation. As funding pours into STEM activities, we need to be sure it is well-spent, not the education reform du jour. STEM must be treated as a core lifelong skill.
STEM proficiency alone will not necessarily lead to better jobs and higher incomes. Currently, about one third of all bachelor's degrees are in a STEM field, yet only about half of those graduates actually work in a related field. Fewer than 5 percent of all jobs are explicitly STEM jobs, and although the number of STEM jobs is expected to increase by 20 percent over the next 10 years, that only brings this number up to about 6 percent of all jobs.
When we couple the number of STEM-educated people not working in their field with this modest real increase in available employment, it makes one think about what we're really trying to accomplish.
Recent studies continue to show the drop-off in STEM interest among the young as they progress through the education system. Young children enjoy science and math; they see the subjects as fun, and they often provide an opportunity to do messy things with adult approval. However, as students mature in the system, social pressures and uninspiring classwork take a toll.
Importantly, bringing STEM into the classroom requires a shift in teaching methods at the same time teachers are required to implement Common Core standards. Science spans hundreds of research areas: hydro, neuro, geo, solar, bio, electrical engineering, chemical engineering and so on. Adding STEM curricula is a big job.
One approach we know works, based on three years in the trenches at John B. Wright Elementary: Bring scientists into the classroom early and often. Normalizing science so that teachers and students interact with Ph.D.-subject-matter experts weekly has created a "science-loving school." We invite you to ask the students.
This isn't to say that schools should hire only Ph.D. STEM teachers, but they should be providing many more interactive professional development opportunities for teachers to enhance their passion and depth in those subjects, building their understanding of the relationships among STEM and all the other subjects to be taught.
If STEM is not integrated with life, it can be boring for students. The challenge is to have them understand the "what's in it for me" aspects, something a better-informed teacher could provide.
Creating appropriate professional development opportunities for teachers, and enrichment opportunities for the students, is money better spent than on new widgets for the classroom and more sophisticated testing methods.
We really need our students to embrace STEM with the knowledge and passion that will make them better-informed citizens; improved test scores and jobs are a byproduct.
Kathleen Perkins is a technology executive based in Brussels and Tucson and serves on several international and local boards. Ron Carsten has worked for more than 40 years in aerospace engineering and serves on STEM advisory boards at the college and primary school levels in Arizona. They work as a team in providing STEM education to John B. Wright Elementary School.