STEM: Are We Doing Enough?
STEM: Are We Doing Enough?
STEM: Are We Doing Enough?
Mediocrity in STEM education isn’t going to cut it if the U.S. wants to position itself as a global leader in the IoT.
Investing in and planning for the future is an important part of life, business, and industry. Companies offer retirement plans to help employees toward this goal, parents create college savings account for their kids, and businesses often prioritize putting aside “rainy day” funds to help out in times of need. The global pandemic in 2020 has thrown the importance of financially planning ahead into the spotlight. Many businesses that didn’t or couldn’t financially plan ahead are hurting now as a result. In the realm of technology and the IoT (Internet of Things), industries are using IoT technologies as tools to help future-proof their businesses against the persistent waves of change.
One way the United States and stakeholders in the tech space must plan for the future is by finding ways to invest in and support STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education. Exposure to STEM education—both as a key set of subjects and a key set of skills like information literacy and computational thinking—is critical in preparing students for the rapidly changing, iterative global workforce of the 21st century.
Stephen Jehl, director of K-12 program design at the NMSI (Natl. Math + Science Initiative), says innovation and problem solving are drivers of economic success. “As a nation, if we are not the home of the best STEM companies and individuals, we will pay an economic and cultural price,” Jehl warns. “STEM education does much more than crank out scientists and engineers. It builds critical thinking skills and imagination. We are living in a society where people don’t understand how our everyday tools even work. That makes them easy targets for scams, makes it more difficult for someone to start a small business, and makes us reliant on the status quo. A population of people with a strong STEM education is nimbler and more adaptive to change.”
Students in the U.S. are often ranked in the middle of the pack when it comes to math and science. Unfortunately, computer science isn’t typically prioritized in schools, and STEM education isn’t always aligned with CTE (career technical education), which helps students link their studies with real-world career paths. Meanwhile, the IoT is infiltrating every industry—from agriculture to manufacturing to retail and beyond. Knowledge and skills related to data analytics, AI (artificial intelligence), and cybersecurity are becoming essential in a 21st-century workplace.
Skills gaps in industries like cybersecurity are glaring and must be addressed sooner rather than later.
If the future of work is changing—and it is—then education and training must change along with it. The U.S.’s successes and shortcomings in STEM education affect more than just kids, parents, and educators; they affect the nation’s economic and national security. As an industry, then, the tech space needs to do more to plan for its future by putting it in the hands of capable, well-trained people. It all starts with STEM education.
‘Mediocre and Stagnant’
According to the NSB (Natl. Science Board) and its science and engineering indicators for 2020, U.S. eighth graders rank in the middle of the pack internationally when compared with the other advanced economies that participated in science and mathematics assessments. Singapore was the highest scoring nation, followed by South Korea and Taiwan. The NSB says U.S. students’ math scores have improved since 1990, but improvements have slowed within the past decade.
Literary scores in science and technology/engineering have increased by four points and two points, respectively, out of a maximum score of 300.
Even though the news could be worse, it’s far from ideal. The NSB states: “U.S. science and mathematics assessments are a measure of how the country is doing in preparing our population for current and future job demands. Based on test scores, U.S. science and mathematics education at the elementary and secondary level is mediocre and stagnant relative to other countries.”
For those reading this that just might sting a little.
Victor McCrary, vice chair of the NSB and vice president for research and graduate programs and professor of chemistry at the University of the District of Columbia, says: “In my personal view, (the U.S.’s) urgency for investing in K-12 STEM education that we had in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s has given way to complacency, consumerism, classism, and racism, which has led us, according to test scores, to a place of ‘STEM mediocrity’ compared to the rest of the world. This position endangers our economic and national security.”
Mediocrity in STEM education is also not going to get the U.S. where it wants to go in terms of being a global leader in IoT innovation.
“Just like swimming, driving, (and) engaged reading are essential skills for successfully navigating through life, we must recognize that for literacy and proficiency in data analytics, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, and biotechnology are very important,” McCrary says. “For (the) IoT, just think about this—there are approximately 7 billion people on our planet, and in five years every person could have upwards of 1,000 different ‘things’ (e.g., personal assistants, thermostats, heart monitors, autonomous vehicles) associated with them. This means 1,000 unique IP addresses per person or 7 trillion IP addresses for the entire planet. If our next generation is not STEM capable, you can bet we will not benefit from innovations developed here, and we fall prey to becoming just a nation of consumers. That’s not our history and not who we are as nation.”
Why is the U.S. stewing in STEM mediocrity—a position that could so negatively impact the nation’s position as a tech leader in years to come? Kate Blanchard, managing director of national education initiatives at Teach For America, says one hurdle is accessibility.
“The United States faces a persistent gap in accessible STEM education, inhibiting millions of students from pursuing academic and career opportunities in related fields,” Blanchard says. “For instance, computer-science courses are offered in only 40% of schools nationwide, the majority of which are not in low-income communities. Where computer-science courses are available, the number of black, Latino, and native students enrolled in those courses remains disproportionately low.”
NMSI’s Jehl similarly points out the glaring gap in equity and access in U.S. education. “While some students are experiencing the best education in the world, others have something that doesn’t meet their needs,” he explains. “This happens across state lines but also across neighborhoods. That is where we have the most room to grow.”
Patti Curtis, Robert Noyce/Ellen Lettvin STEM Education Fellow with the U.S. Dept. of Education*, says assessment results showing that the U.S. is in the middle of the pack is one of several policy levers that inspires Congress and individual states to do more for STEM education. In terms of hurdles, she says: “Educators need better teacher preparation, relevant professional development opportunities, leadership support, time to collaborate, and thoughtful curricular materials. Students need greater exposure to STEM role
models, unbiased support from family and other adults, and the understanding that learning from failure is not only acceptable but desirable.
Making a Mockery of U.S. in STEM
Are we raising a class of mediocre students in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math)? Tough question to ask and answer.
Moving Beyond Mediocrity
Pradeep Kotamraju, director of the Career and College Transition Division at the California Dept. of Education, preaches the importance of better aligning STEM education programs with career pathways. “The United States has a very robust and structured CTE program in grades 5-12 that is supported by federal and state funding,” Kotamraju says. “If educators in the United States could work on the alignment of STEM with CTE programs, it would prepare our students with the relevance of courses in STEM programs. It would also give students an earlier perspective on careers that are available and get them to seek career information at earlier grade levels.” Such careers include IT professional, data analyst, cybersecurity expert, and more that directly relate to the IoT.
Finally, there’s the elephant in the room: funding. Jehl says the most effective thing the federal government can do to address this issue is increase funding at the local level. “Local districts need more money to pay great teachers, purchase equipment, and physically transform schools into engaging places,” he explains. “We also can make teaching a more appealing career. Currently, we treat teaching as a job rather than a profession. However, most teachers have advanced degrees, years of experience, and participate in rich, ongoing professional development. Higher pay, higher standards, and increased support for teachers will improve outcomes, particularly in areas where great things aren’t currently happening.”
To move beyond mediocrity in STEM education, the U.S. will also need to address funding. “We need to invest in STEM and CTE programs with funding that keeps them sustainable going forward,” Kotamraju adds. “We also need legislation that truly supports these programs. If we expect our students to become competitive on a global level, they need programs that will assist them in becoming competitive.”
Some great programs exist and are working to address the various barriers preventing some U.S. students from being exposed to STEM education and related career paths in technology and the IoT.
For instance, the Hour of Code began as a Code.org initiative, and, over the years, has morphed into a global computer-science community event. First held in 2013, the Hour of Code now reaches tens of millions of students and teachers internationally every year. The movement encourages participants to “learn computer science” and “change the world.”
Kirsten O’Brien, spokesperson for Code.org, also touts the organization’s efforts to bring computer science to the forefront in U.S. education. “One of our main focuses is getting states to adopt nine policies that cement computer science as a fundamental subject in the classroom,” O’Brien explains. “These policies were created by the Code.org Advocacy Coalition, which is composed of dozens of organizations. Five states—Arkansas, Idaho, Indiana, Maryland, and Nevada—have already adopted all nine (policies) and many others are close.”
Like math, English, and biology, O’Brien believes computer science is a foundational subject. “K-12 students who study computer science are more likely to enroll in college, do better on standardized testing, and perform better in the workplace, even if their career choice has nothing to do with computer science,” she says. “With a field like IoT, the connection is even more immediate. Students who study computer science are more likely to have an interest or feel confident working in fields such as IoT, robotics, and others.”
Other initiatives designed to attract youth to STEM subjects include NASCAR Acceleration Nation, various STEM community outreach programs offered by the Society of Women Engineers, and high school science bowl competitions offered by the NOBCChE (Natl. Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers).
Teach for America’s Blanchard says one of the most exciting and effective programs she’s seen is the Marcy Lab School.
The mission at Marcy Lab School is to eventually be the largest pipeline of diverse engineering talent in the country. “They’re creating viable professional career pathway opportunities for students who may not have been able to financially afford to go to college or had to stay close at home to support family and doing so in a holistic way that includes both educational and leadership development support,” concludes Blanchard.
Solving the STEM workforce gaps will take a concerted effort by all stakeholders. The U.S. Dept. of Education’s Curtis points to several efforts being made on this level by her department, including the release of its STEM strategic plan, Charting a Course for America’s Success, which serves as a sort of starting point for state, local, public, and private entities. Curtis says the strategic plan aims to build strong foundations for STEM literacy, increase diversity, equity, and inclusion in STEM education, and prepare the STEM workforce for future careers in industries like the IoT.
“Beginning in 2013, the Dept. of Education’s Nita M. Lowey 21st Century Community Leaning Centers built cross-agency STEM partnerships when it teamed up with NASA, NOAA, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and the Natl. Park Service to create STEM content and professional development for its out-of-school program,” Curtis says. “The agency program activities offer students engaging science and engineering experiences that addressed real-world problems and exposure to STEM careers.”
The department also funded the Pathways to STEM Apprenticeship for High School CTE (Career and Technical Education) Students demonstration program. Apprenticeship grants as part of this program support state efforts to expand and improve the transition of high school CTE students to post-secondary education and employment through work-based learning apprenticeships in STEM fields, including computer science.
While there are exciting things happening in both the formal and informal education spaces, there’s much more work to be done to boost the U.S. from mediocre to great in terms of STEM education. The NSB’s McCrary paraphrases Albert Einstein in saying “to continue to do the same thing in hopes of obtaining a different result is the definition of insanity.” So what, then, can the United States do differently in STEM education to achieve better outcomes and prepare to lead future IoT innovation?
“Let’s first accept that it is a national imperative and priority that all of our students across the nation, across all racial, ethnic, and gender demographics are STEM-capable at a level that our students can compete globally,” McCrary says. “And that means we as a nation are willing to invest in our public schools starting at K-12. And that means we must have the courage to engage local and state politicians to make those investments and to ensure these investments are dispersed equitably.”
Peggy and Meg Fitzgerald, author, “Ascending Davos: A Career Journey from the Emergency Room to the Boardroom,” talk about her book and her career history. She says now is the time to think about your career and she got street cred for taking a job she never wanted.
Read more of our past features in Connected World related to STEM
Mediocrity in STEM education isn’t going to cut it if the U.S. wants to position itself as a global leader in the IoT. When STEM education starts being treated as a national imperative, the U.S. will be on the right path. Until then, stakeholders, including technology providers and other companies in the IoT value chain, can and should look for ways to create, support, and fund STEM programs, events, and initiatives that will help raise up the next generation of tech professionals who will ultimately fill the skills gaps that put a damper on IoT adoption and innovation.
*The responses expressed herein are not those of the U.S. Dept. of Education nor an endorsement of any products, programs, or policies discussed.
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