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How Can We Improve STEM Education?

How Can We Improve STEM Education?

STEM fields — careers that encompass science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — are the careers of tomorrow. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the overall economy is expected to grow by 7.4% between 2016 and 2026. STEM fields are expected to grow by 10.8%. In spite of this anticipated growth, America is falling behind when it comes to STEM graduates. What does STEM education look like right now, and what can we do to improve it in the future?

A Dearth of STEM Graduates

The United States likes to portray itself as a leader in science and industry, but when it comes to STEM graduates, it’s lagging behind. According to the World Economic Forum, China is the leader when it comes to STEM graduates. China had 4.7 million STEM graduates in 2016. India came in second with 2.6 million. The U.S only had 568,000 STEM gradudates during the same year. China also sends a majority of its STEM students to U.S. universities to study. 62% of international students last year were studying science or engineering degrees. Of these, 70% are from China.

Why are so few students pursuing a STEM degree and later a career in the field?

Problems Facing STEM Education

While the STEM industry continues to grow, fewer students are interested in pursuing these careers. Between 2017 and 2018, the number of teenage boys interested in STEM dropped from 36% to 24%. Teenage girls just don’t seem interested in STEM at all, sitting at an unchanging 11%. This disinterest is partially due to a lack of emphasis on STEM in public education. Requirements mandated by many states’ standards, unfortunately, mean that a lot of time must be dedicated to test-prep and thus specialized education can get neglected.

There is also the problem of inequality in STEM fields. This industry is still thought of as a boy’s only club, and women may find it difficult to get a degree or succeed in the STEM sector. Less than 1/3 of individuals in science, engineering, math, and technology careers are women in the developed world. Women are also less likely to enter STEM careers and more likely to leave them. Studies found that 32% of female STEM workers are planning to leave their job within the year.

These gender and social barriers are a growing problem. Even if companies commit themselves to equality and diversity in the workplace, the existing teams are still closing their doors to young girls and women who are interested in STEM. If we don’t start encouraging young women and improving STEM education, we won’t have the minds that we need to continue thriving in the future.

How to Improve STEM Education

What can we do to improve STEM education and provide young men and women with the skills and opportunities that they’ll need to succeed in this growing field?

The first step is to focus on advanced mathematics. The United States public school system ranks below average in advanced mathematics, essential to STEM careers. Out of 65 countries surveyed, the U.S. ranked 27th. Students in the U.S. have trouble with the mathematics that has high cognitive demands because they’re not taught in public schools as much anymore. It’s difficult to transition to college-level math without the foundation that public school can provide.

Current curriculums don’t put the emphasis on math, science or other STEM subjects. That’s why so many U.S. college graduates are from China and other countries. The Common Core was supposed to start addressing this problem, but it isn’t clear yet if it has made it any easier for American students to succeed in the fields where they’re needed most.

Teachers need to start engaging their students as early as possible. Some enterprising teachers are instructing students as young as 4-years-old engineering because they are more than capable of learning basic engineering concepts. These teachers are using art, dance and puppetry to teach pre-k students STEM ideals in a way that they can understand.

We also need to take steps to reduce the inequality in STEM careers as well. Women in many male-dominated industries face the same challenges, and we will need to overcome them if we hope to fill the STEM needed jobs in the future.

The Future of STEM

The STEM industry, or STEAM if you include art, is growing and changing every day. This field is on the leading edge of every monumental discovery that we’ve made in the last few decades and will continue to lead the way into the future, but we won’t have anyone to make these discoveries or create those new inventions if we don’t start encouraging students to pursue STEM careers once they graduate.

The trick is to start early. Children as young as 4 can learn and understand the basic concepts of engineering and science. Introducing them to these ideas early can help to foster a lifelong love for the sciences and encourage them to pursue those loves as a career later in life.

By Megan Ray Nichols,

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