We need to do far more to be prepared for future challenges, and STEM education is key in those efforts

It’s time to double down on STEM education

We need to do far more to be prepared for future challenges, and STEM education is key in those efforts

After more than two years, the nation continues to grapple with COVID-19. We’ve learned that the best defense against this pathogen–vaccines–is partly due to long-term, strategic investments in STEM education.

It’s a powerful reminder of how vital STEM is to our lives. But we need to do far more to be prepared for future challenges. We need to double down on STEM education.

The National Science Board’s Science and Engineering Indicators, a biennial, congressionally mandated report, shows that while the U.S. continues to be a keystone of global science and engineering, challenges do persist in STEM education. In particular, there are long-standing, shocking academic achievement disparities across demographics, socioeconomic categories, and geography in STEM subjects like mathematics.

Data from the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress, for example, reveal that among 8th graders eligible for free or reduced lunch, the average mathematics score was below “proficient” for all racial groups. Indicators data also show that low-income students are less likely to have highly-experienced math teachers than peers who attend public schools in more affluent communities.  

Women and racial and ethnic minorities also face unique barriers to enter S&E disciplines that are critical to spurring technological innovation and economic vitality, including my field of materials science and advanced manufacturing. For instance, by 2030 the number of women in STEM jobs must nearly double for the S&E workforce to be representative of the nation’s overall population. And the number of people who are Hispanic or Latino needs to triple. Millions are missing from the nation’s S&E ecosystem, and we must rectify this through strategic approaches informed by proven successes in STEM education to create a workforce that more closely resembles our country. In my home state of Tennessee, for instance, innovative organizations like tnAchieves aim to increase higher education opportunities for high school students across the state through scholarships and mentorship support.

Government, industry, and academia must work together to reinvigorate STEM education and create a variety of pathways to S&E jobs, providing opportunities for all Americans. States must invest in all levels of public education: K-12, community, technical colleges, 4-year colleges, and post-graduate training opportunities. We need public-private partnerships to create local, flexible pathways for Americans to develop the skills they need to attain good paying STEM jobs.

The COVID-19 pandemic also demonstrates the resiliency of a STEM career. Although both STEM and non-STEM workers initially had sharp drop-offs in employment, STEM workers with a bachelor’s degree experienced the smallest effect and the fullest recovery.  

Policymakers, college administrators, and industry executives should take advantage of  opportunities to efficiently train skilled technical workers via associate’s degrees, certificates, micro credentials, and apprenticeships, so that employers can onboard badly needed S&E workers like information technology specialists and healthcare professionals. It is imperative that academia, industry, and government collaborate to deliver good S&E jobs for communities across the country, just as we are doing in Tennessee. For example, a partnership between the University of Tennessee and Oak Ridge National Laboratory fosters innovation, strategic partnerships, and enhances the S&E workforce.

In the 21st century, no nation, including the United States, is the world leader in all aspects of science and engineering. However, our nation is a keystone, or an essential nexus that is instrumental to the structure and success of the global S&E ecosystem. Our principal competitors in this global system, including China, have and are investing heavily in STEM talent and growing their S&E capacity. In fact, China recently surpassed the U.S. in some areas, such as R&D-intensive manufacturing output and production of S&E publications.

To ensure that the US remains a keystone of global science and engineering–essential to our economic and national security–we must invest in our domestic S&E workforce and remain a magnet for talent from around the globe, on which we have depended for many years. We need forward-thinking, strategic, investments in developing talent. More than ever before, it’s time to double down on STEM education to create pathways to 21st century S&E jobs and prepare the nation for future challenges. 

eSchool Media Contributors