Why STEM Education Matters

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Greg Tucker

You will hear the acronym STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) a lot whenever the discussion turns to improving education in the United States, and there is a good reason. Those disciplines are the cornerstones of the jobs that will keep America competitive in the near and distant future, and we have to get our students ready for that future now.

A teacher writes notes on an overhead projector during class in this CNCS file photo.

It's not exactly breaking news that U.S. students have lagged in many surveys that measure academic performance around the globe, with our children currently sitting about mid-pack in international comparisons of math and science performance. Other studies also paint a bleak picture with less than one-third of U.S. eighth graders showing proficiency in math and science, and reports showing that even some schools that are considered successful aren't keeping the pace in STEM subjects.

The paradox is that we live in a society where a lot of the careers that can be launched with a solid education in the STEM curriculum would seem to be appealing to the students who are failing to learn about them.

For example, many of the green jobs that would interest those with an environmental bent require studies in the life sciences, engineering, and math. Our technology addictions are fueled by the work of engineers and computer programmers who toiled for years to make advances that would have been magical a few decades ago simply everyday occurrences. Even the careers that young children often aspire to -- like veterinarians, doctors, nurses, and astronauts – will need them to transfer that enthusiasm into studies in STEM areas as they grow up.

So, how can we turn this tide and make STEM education more successful in the United States?

Sow STEM seeds early: Students who have exciting experiences in STEM subjects early are more likely to follow through. Eighth graders with an interest in STEM are three times more likely to pursue degrees in those careers later.

Show students why STEM careers matter: Underrepresented groups, like women and minorities and students from low-income areas, need to see others like them who are involved in STEM-related careers to spark their interest.

Explain that STEM education creates opportunity: More than 1 million additional graduates with STEM degrees will be needed to fill the growing number of jobs that require those skills.

President Obama has emphasized the need to improve STEM studies to improve global competitiveness, and the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) is exploring the formation of a new STEM service corps to improve educational outcomes in these critical subject areas. CNCS has a history of harnessing the nation's people power to solve difficult problems, and many CNCS programs and initiatives are providing services that are improving educational opportunity across the country. Here are a few examples:

  • CalSERVES is operating an afterschool program with 123 AmeriCorps members and 450 volunteers that offers intensive small-group tutoring in STEM subjects.
  • Citizen Schools, which works to expand the learning day for low-income middle schools around the nation, is connecting volunteer professionals with students to improve math studies and increase enthusiasm for STEM careers.
  • Our VISTAs have been connecting students with STEM professionals through groups like Tomorrow's Aeronautical Museum in Compton, CA, and the Greater Valdosta United Way and Boys and Girls Clubs in Georgia.

We need to take steps now to reverse the slide in STEM education and prepare our students for a more competitive future. Our success or failure will determine our country's future as a global economic power.

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