STEM Education Must Change to Stem this Tide

It appears we have a long row to hoe before we can see much-needed improvements in U.S. science and technology education — or before we can attain a much-needed and competitive science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) talent pipeline.

A recent report from the Washington-based Institute for a Competitive Workforce suggests we’re further behind the math-and-science eight-ball than we think. The study, The Case for Being Bold: A New Agenda for Business in Improving STEM Education, compared U.S. STEM students with their peers worldwide and found the U.S. students ranked 25th in the world for mathematics and 17th for science literacy. Ouch.

And guess where the top-ranked math and science students hail from? You got it. The Shanghai region of China.

The report echoes concerns I wrote about in February in a news analysis of General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt’s appointment by President Obama to the latter’s recently formed jobs council. Most of the HR experts and analysts I spoke to for that piece (posted to HREOnline™), concurred that the council’s commitment to improving technology and science and math education in this country — and recharging businesses’ partnerships with schools in that effort — was a hopeful sign that our nation’s leaders are finally and fully recognizing just how great this need has become. Said another way, our leaders finally understand just how inadequate our STEM education is on a global scale, and what that portends for this country.

The ICW report points out that the business community’s long-standing “nice guy” approach to promoting best practices and providing resources to schools just won’t cut it anymore. It recommends that business leaders from scientific and engineering firms get in there and do some personal instructing, that schools relax some of their certification requirements to get more scientists and engineers into the classrooms as teachers, and that top instructors be asked to take on additional students.

The latter would mean schools would have to relax their current standards of teaching the same material to the same number of students. As for getting more business leaders in front of students to teach science in some kind of partnership arrangement, I’m sure HR would and should have a role in that.

I’m especially passionate about this crying national need. I come from a family of chemists and engineers, including a great grandfather bridge designer, a grandfather chemist who headed research for Sunkist, a chemical oceanographer father and now an engineer son.

My dad, now in his 80s, voluntarily speaks to high-school students as much as he can. His goal, he’s told me more than once, is to “get them excited about this stuff.” Passion and excitement for science has to come from the teachers, and can’t, he says, when the majority haven’t been trained and educated that far. They don’t understand it themselves. How can you get passionate about something you don’t understand?

There’s an overall sense, in the ICW report, that time is running out for us to right this ship. All the more reason to get the people who “get it” in front of our classrooms now and stop assuming we have the luxury of time to evaluate our entire educational system — or figure out how to start emulating China.