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Challenges in STEM Education Abound

Practicing engineer with student
A recent forum identified the challenges to educating a STEM workforce in the United States and suggested several potential solutions, including encouraging practicing engineers to become more involved with students and schools. PhotoAlto via AP Images

A forum hosted by U.S. News & World Report reveals what is wrong with the state of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education in the United States—and how practitioners, teachers, and parents can all help.

October 2, 2012—A year ago, when U.S. News & World Report set out to examine why so many jobs in the United States remained unfilled at a time of high unemployment, the findings were discouraging: many of the open positions required at least a moderate understanding of the concepts involved in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)—but that knowledge and the related skills were sorely lacking in the American workforce.

So the magazine decided to bring together STEM leaders to examine the problem, and its potential solutions, more closely. Its first forum on the topic, held in Dallas this summer, brought together 1,600 STEM educators, practitioners, and corporate leaders, all of whom have a stake in the future of STEM education in the United States. The result is more than a dozen conclusions about the importance of effective STEM education and what needs to be done to improve it.

Among the conclusions is that secondary education is not adequately preparing students for college-level education in STEM fields. According to the magazine’s report on the forum, published September 26, “At the college level, too many capable students are being washed out of STEM majors.” Better teaching methods could improve the situation, producing, for example, 30,000 new engineers in just four years. The way to do that, the report says, is to follow the lead of schools that are highly successful at teaching STEM, one of the report’s most significant recommendations. “We have many good examples of schools and programs that succeed, but no consensus on which ones to focus on and scale up to reach all 55 million public school partners,” the report concludes. A lack of qualified math teachers contributes to the problem, the report concludes.

Many of the schools that are succeeding in STEM education are using hands-on learning methods that link math to science, another conclusion of the forum. And while online learning has its advantages, “combining good teachers with technology may be the game changer” for virtual college courses, the report states.

The forum also concluded that women, Latinos, and African-Americans offer a vast untapped source of potential STEM achievement. “Often for cultural reasons, they are underrepresented in many STEM areas, yet they make up the bulk of the future workforce,” the study points out. (Read an article on how one university’s engineering program is working to retain members of underrepresented groups, here.)

The forum also revealed that community colleges are an undervalued and underused resource for boosting STEM education outcomes. Whether or not they go on to achieve bachelor’s degrees, community college students who study STEM fields fare better economically. “It’s about middle-class jobs, many of which don’t require bachelor’s degrees,” the report states. (Read our article on a study that shows that women who study STEM topics at the community-college level do better than their counterparts regardless of their eventual career track, here.)

The U.S. News & World Report forum concluded that while a lack of adequate STEM skills is clearly a national problem, its solutions may lie at the local level. “STEM is a subset of the whole unresolved education reform problem of standards, outcomes, and teacher performance; it’s just that STEM performance is more easily measurable. You either master a given level of math, or you don’t,” the report states. “The new, state-approved Common Core Math and Science Standards are viewed as a very important tool to promote and measure improvement, but there is concern that they will not be fully implemented by many states.”

What can be done? Partnerships between community members and schools, and between parents and teachers, are seen as key. “Businesses must be engaged in helping influence the education system for their own good; they need the workers,” the report points out. And STEM may need to be “marketed” to kids as a career path, much as acting, music, and sports are. “Math means money,” the report states. In fact, research released earlier this year by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce concluded that students in STEM fields face a lower risk of unemployment than those in other fields. (Read Major Affects Job Prospects.)

Those practicing in STEM fields can and must do more to reach out to students, the report concludes, to impress upon them the benefits of STEM fields and to serve as real-life role models. ASCE contributes mentors and regional coordinators to the Future City Competition, recruits volunteers for Engineers Week events, offers a kids-only website called ASCEville, and has entered into a partnership with PBS to produce a new method of outreach called ZOOM into Engineering that is modeled on the PBS series Building Big. Andrew W. Herrmann, P.E., SECB, F.ASCE, the president of ASCE, discusses the topic in his September Message from the President column in ASCE News.

ASCE also offers outreach training tutorials to help practicing engineers boost their skills and confidence in talking to students about engineering. “Let go of your stereotypes about who can become a civil engineer,” Herrmann writes, “and make sure that every student who shows an interest learns that there are others just like him or her who are successful civil engineers.”



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