Despite the noise and discourse about the state of STEM education in the US, we have a long way to go before we solve the conundrum and emerge as the world leader.

Gaëtan Salone, who is today an established engineer in a leading MNC in the Silicon Valley, cannot thank his class teacher enough for going the extra mile and helping him with his math and science. He credits his love for the subjects to his seventh grade teacher who took upon himself and coached him till he grew confident.

“I was really not enjoying my math and science till my seventh grade. It clearly showed in my performance,”

Reminisces Salone about his school days in Helsinki.

“But I was fortunate enough to have great teachers who took special care to see that I not only enjoyed the subjects but also excelled in them. We were taught not to cram to pass a test or exam, but to think analytically, question and evaluate references. I realized very early that learning hands-on and making mistakes were the first few steps to my learning process.”

“When I look back to my early education and see the kind of system my 6-year-old daughter is in right now in the US, I can clearly see the difference. I want her to love STEM subjects and probably pursue a career in technology. But I don’t see this happening here. With less focus on playful and hands-on learning, she’s getting disinterested in science and math. I can see where this will lead.”

Besides, I am paying over $25,000 annually on her school fees and this will increase as she goes to higher classes. However, this is not about the fees alone. If she gets the same special care and attention that I got in Finland back then, I would definitely rethink my decision. So, we are moving back to my roots in Helsinki next year,” tells Salone.

Salone also tells us that the amount of homework his daughter comes home with everyday does not leave her with much room for playing and relaxing after school. “When I was my daughter’s age, my homework was very minimal. Most of the days we had no homework at all. We had a lot of free time to play after school,” remembers Salone.

The kind of life Salone leads today in the Silicon Valley would be anybody’s envy. But his daughter’s education is his top-most priority and nothing will stop him from giving up what he has earned so far to secure the best for his child. Salone might not be going through this dilemma alone. There might be several parents from Finland, but settled in the US, contemplating on the same course of action.

Given the 2015 data from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), where Finland outperformed the US in reading, math and science, this comes as no surprise. PISA is considered to be one of the most important tools to measure education systems worldwide.

So where does this scenario leave us with? Why isn’t Salone happy with the US model of STEM education? We all know about the current state of STEM education in the US and we had also discussed in detail about what needs to be done in our earlier blog.

However, very little is being done despite repeated calls for educational reform. There has been a common consensus in the US to support and promote STEM education, thus leading to several studies, commissions and task forces that have come up with numerous findings and reports. Interestingly, all the reports singled out the same problems and called for the same solutions.

If we were to look for a sustainable change, the American STEM education system needs to go for an overhaul. Perhaps emulating Finland’s education system is the answer. Considered to be one of the best education systems in the world, Finland is able to outrank the US year after year because this Nordic country has over the years revolutionized its educational system with several simple, yet novel reforms.

Let’s find out the top 3 things that educators and specialists in Finland pointed out what Finland does differently to consistently outrank the US in the field of education.

 

Formal schooling does not begin until age 7

Global education influencer and ALO Finland digital teacher training on Finnish education, Pirjo Suhonen, says:

“Formal schooling in Finland does not begin until age 7, when children are considered to be ready, motivated and eager to learn. Out here in Finland besides science, technology, math, literacy and language, art, music, physical education, textile and wood work are also considered important in holistic education.”

Whereas in the US, children are stuck in the K-12 circle, where they begin their formal schooling around 5 or 6 years, and the cycle continues till college. The grading system takes a toll on some students as they have to deal with tests, competitions, peer pressure and the rigmarole.

 

Finish education is not based on high-stakes testing

Suhonen eleborates,

“Finnish education is not based on high-stakes testing or narrow curricula. Instead, play and playful learning are highly valued in Finland. Teachers do not need to stress over test results, spend tremendous amount of time in preparing children for tests or assessing them. They can create a learning environment, which supports the holistic growth and development of learners. There is a shift of focus in the curriculum from teaching students content (what to learn) to broad-based competencies (how to learn).”

“Basic education creates the conditions for lifelong learning and continuous development, which is an integral part of building a good life. Children should learn how to learn, experiment and make mistakes, not how to take tests.”

However, in the US standardized tests and exams are a part of the curriculum. This system leaves no room for a holistic growth as most of the children tend to cram and study just to pass their exams. There’s also very little focus on playful and hands-on learning early on.

 

Finland relies on academic, research-based teacher education

Adjunct Professor (UEF), education researcher and specialist, Jyrki Loima, says:

“Finland remains to be the only European country that has fully relied on academic, research-based teacher education for its best high school students and has updated their curricula accordingly. Teacher education programs have remained very popular and universities may only take the best applicants, which is a strong pre-service quality assurance guarantee as well. Current basic education curriculum update (in force since 2016) will have less content requirements for students.”

“More attention is paid on teamwork skills, the joy of learning and interdisciplinary, project-related collaboration of the students. Skills and processes matter, not solely emphasized on test scores. Recent minor changes in teacher education programs have been holistic and constructivist, emphasizing on the individual support that learners need. Research skills are seen as important tools for teachers to improve the various learning environments they facilitate.”

In a stark contrast, a survey conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) states that around 30 percent of physics and chemistry teachers in public high schools in the US are not well qualified in their fields and have not earned a certificate to teach those subjects.

 

Conclusion

Given Finland’s education system where children start formal schooling at 7 years with more focus on playful learning and pedagogic research and child development, children don’t need to worry about competition or exams. With no private schools in Finland, there’s also the same level of education for everyone regardless of anyone’s social stature. So, parents need not worry about looking for top performing schools. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why Finland’s education system outperforms other countries, including the US.

Moreover, as education is free in Finland, the student loan debt compared to the US is quite low. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s report, the student loan debt in the US amounts to $1.56 trillion, fanned out among 45 million American borrowers.

In Finland, emphasis is also laid on special education and extra care when a child fails to learn things as fast as his/her peers. A special teacher is assigned to help the slow learner. However, in the US and in other countries without the special attention, parents end up hiring private tutors to fill in the gap.

With minimal homework, children in Finland can focus on play and extra-curricular activities after school. Salone would not be planning to move out of the Silicon Valley, had his daughter got the same kind of education system that he got as a child in Finland. But we can stop the future exodus of many parents like Salone and perhaps lure Salone back to the Silicon Valley if we revolutionize our education system and bring in those simple and novel reforms that Finland had been following over the years.

 

What could be the apparent reason for the current state of STEM education in the US? And how are we going to address the issue? Here, we look at some of the hurdles and how we can tackle them.

 
STEM education in US

Sean Mathew bailed out of his physics degree from one of the top colleges in the US in his senior year. He had been the kind of student that most employers would love to hire. His scores were excellent and he had planned to be a theoretical physicist like his role model Sheldon Cooper from the Big Bang Theory. But as Sean sat in his major class of 2016, he realized, he couldn’t relate his class theories to real-life problem solving skills. And when he looked at the curriculum, he didn’t see any respite. He was completely disillusioned.

So Sean, a 23-year-old, switched to international relations, where he says “classes are a lot more interesting”. Of his five friends at the college, two of them have followed in his footsteps. While the other two, who are still pursuing their course, plan to do business after they complete their degree.

Sean and his friends’ experience shows how some of the best performing students are getting disillusioned by the way engineering or STEM subjects are being taught in schools and colleges, where there is more focus on theory rather than in hands-on learning.

Their stories are not isolated. There are many like them who are switching to non-STEM subjects citing the same reason. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, by 2019 there will be a requirement of 1.9 million STEM educated professionals in the US, but roughly 40 percent of students, who intend to do a major in STEM, end up switching to other subjects.

 

STEM crisis in the US: Is it for real?

“Think about the America within our reach: A country that leads the world in educating its people. An America that attracts a new generation of high-tech manufacturing and high-paying jobs.” – Obama

 

During his tenure, Obama had pushed for STEM education and endorsed for more public-private partnerships, more career training at community colleges and for more American innovation. And now, carrying his predecessor’s legacy forward and recognizing the importance of STEM education in enhancing a new generation of American workers, President Donald Trump had recently signed a memorandum for STEM education funding.

It’s true that the educators, policy makers, politicians, businesses are waking up to the importance of STEM today, but we all know that our nation had always had a shortage of STEM workforce.

According to the third annual US News/Raytheon 2016 STEM Index, US continues to have a shortage of STEM professionals despite an increase in the number of STEM degrees. A Census Bureau report shows that about 74 percent of college graduates with STEM degrees are opting for non-STEM jobs starting from law to education and social work.

This is certainly a bad news for employers who want to fill STEM vacancies. According to the US Department of Commerce, STEM graduates are the most in demand and earn higher salaries than their non-STEM counterparts. The demand for STEM professionals is growing as the US economy has transitioned to a more focused technological-based economy from an industrial-dependent economy.

A study conducted by the National Math and Science Initiative indicates that only 36 percent of high school graduates are prepared to pursue a college-level science course. Another worrisome figure according to the Department of Education is that only 16 percent of high school seniors are keen on pursuing STEM careers.

Another unimpressive data released in 2015 by The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) had placed the US as the 38th out of 71 countries in math and 24th in science. There are even more reasons to worry as STEM jobs are being projected to increase 1.7 times faster than non-STEM jobs with top companies struggling to find professionals with the right skills to fill in the vacancies.

Based on a report from the US Patent and Trademark Office (1997-2015), it granted 3,030,080 patents to US entities, while the rest of the world was granted 2,709,771 patents. However, this trend is changing now with other countries leading the pack. This is a grave trend indicating the slowdown of science in the US.

So, what could be the apparent reason for the “crisis-like” state of STEM education in the US? How are we going to address the issue? Let’s look at how we can tackle this hurdle and “help give our American children a pathway to success in the workforce of tomorrow,” as Trump had said recently while granting a fund of $200 million a year to promote STEM.

 

1. Offer STEM curriculum in elementary schools

“For our economy to thrive in the future, we need more young women, as well as young men, to have opportunities to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics and pursue careers in these areas.” – Former Chancellor of the University of California, Linda PB Katehi

 

Research shows that the earlier we tap on our children’s potential and support their wonder about the world by initiating the basic foundation for STEM, the more successful they will be later in life. Studies also reveal that students exposed to   STEM at an early age perform better in science and math  

High-quality, early-learning environments also foster life-long interest in STEM, besides providing them with a structure to build upon their natural inclination to question, build and explore. These facts substantiate why STEM curriculum should be introduced in all elementary schools and for all students across the US.

Research confirms that children’s brains are more receptive to learning logic and math between the ages of one and four. A study by the University of California, Irvine, has also proved that early math skills prove to be beneficial for later academic success. The study found that “early math concepts, such as knowledge of numbers and ordinality, were the most powerful predictors of later learning.

As we all know how important math and STEM competencies are for the country’s long-term economic growth, it is increasingly important to focus on STEM in early education. Children are the future of tomorrow’s workforce, so they need to be exposed early to be able to prepare and qualify to fill in the soaring STEM vacancies.

And the best possible way to shore up that pipeline is to connect government entities, non-profit organizations, businesses and schools into engaged networks dedicated in supporting STEM education. Children should also be exposed to real-world STEM workplaces that will ignite an interest, as they experience the opportunities and understand the intricacies involved in achieving them. There is also an urgent need for the US to compete with countries which are churning out a large number of students competent in STEM.

 

2. Include hands-on learning to promote STEM skills

So, how do we imbibe an interest in the little minds? “Instead of attempting to fit STEM activities into existing blocks of learning, we should look at how we can deconstruct traditional content blocks and reconstruct meaningful experiences using innovative STEM practices,” says Nathan Lang, an education strategist with CDW-G.

 

Tristar Experience has recently refurbished a Lockheed L-1011 into a mobile classroom, where schoolchildren in Kansas will soon get to learn STEM hands-on inside the two-storey jumbo jet. This experience will disrupt conventional learning and spark an interest in children and inspire them to pursue STEM subjects in schools and colleges. This is an innovative way to lure children and pique their interest level, and will go a long way in engaging the little minds in inspiring them to actually look at STEM from a different perspective.

We need to think of such new and innovative ways to lure more children into learning STEM. Studies have found that being hands-on helps children get a better understanding of the subject or topic. It allows them to experiment and learn through their mistakes, besides grasping the gaps between theory and practice. Considered to be the best way to keep children engaged, hands-on activity also helps emulate real-life engineering design process and prevents students from getting bogged down by the topic.

As we know, STEM topics can be very complicated and difficult to understand for elementary students. This makes it all the more important to include activity-based, hands-on learning. Scientific information can be passed down through books and lectures, but when students are involved in hands-on learning, they learn things better and faster.

A meta-analysis research of 15 years on the advantages of hands-on learning, including 57 studies of 13,000 students in 1,000 classrooms, reveals that students in activity-based programs performed up to 20 percent higher than groups using traditional or textbook approaches.

It was also found that hands-on learning corresponds to a child’s natural curiosity and problem- solving skills. Learning with experiments expands a child’s curiosity and understanding of the subject. For instance, when children participate in science fairs or exhibitions or maker faires, they not only develop vital skills in science and math, but also improve on their confidence level and communication skills.

Research conducted by the University of Chicago reveals that students who are involved in hands-on experiments understand the concepts better and also score better than those who are not exposed to activity-based learning. The National Assessment of Educational progress has also indicated that students who indulge in hands-on learning activities weekly, fare better than their counterparts by over 70 percent of a grade level in math and 40 percent of a grade level in science.

It is therefore important to ditch the monotonous theory-based lectures and facilitate continued and creative ways by going the extra mile to inspire the next generation of scientists, innovators and makers. To fuel an interest and spark among children, we need parents and teachers to come together and play an equal role in encouraging children to explore and experiment without the fear of failing.

 

3. Get well-trained STEM teachers

“One of the things that I’ve been focused on as President is how we create an all-hands-on-deck approach to science, technology, engineering, and math…We need to make this a priority to train an army of new teachers in these subject areas, and to make sure that all of us as a country are lifting up these subjects for the respect that they deserve.” – Obama

 

Research reveals that experienced and well-trained math and science teachers make a life-altering impact on students, who outperform students with less experienced teachers. How can we expect children to learn if teachers are not well-equipped to teach STEM subjects?

Experts suggest that for a better future of STEM education, we need well-trained and enthusiastic teachers who will be able to bring their first-hand know-how in mentoring children. Teachers should get professional development opportunities from time to time that will help catalyze their passion and talent for teaching STEM.

“There is a huge difference in learning arithmetic or mathematics from someone who understands it and loves to teach it compared to learning arithmetic and mathematics from someone who is afraid of it,” says the first lady president of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Susan Hockfield.

A survey conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) states that around 30 percent of physics and chemistry teachers in public high schools are not well qualified in their fields and have not earned a certificate to teach those subjects. Having qualified teachers with strong content knowledge in STEM subjects is crucial to our economy. That is why it is critically important to have dedicated veterans, especially with a STEM background and have qualified individuals in the classroom who can lend their experience and knowledge to the students.

It is also important to introduce an effective teaching system prior to integrating STEM learning into early childhood education. Educators should fully understand the ways young children absorb STEM concepts and accordingly come up with new and innovative ways to support and inspire children.

Only if the teachers are well trained they will be able to guide and try out pedagogical techniques to see what works best and what doesn’t; they will be able to make STEM subjects fun and interesting for children and help them learn better; they will be able to sow the seed of interest that will gradually transition into an exciting and fulfilling STEM career. Teachers should be the spark that ignite children’s passion for STEM and they can be that spark only if they are well trained.

 

4. Remove disparity in pay and gender

“The way that technology companies can support women is to ensure that their cultures are inclusive and that they become places where women want to work and grow their careers…” – Marco Zappacosta, CEO and Co-Founder, Thumbtack, Inc.

 

Several studies point that the gender gap begins as early as grade school. The problem lies in society as girls are not encouraged to pursue science and math. They grow up with the general belief that they are not cut out for science subjects. Consequently, they end up pursuing arts or humanities.

According to the Harvard Business Review, women in science and technology jobs are 45 percent more likely to leave the industry just within a year compared to their men counterparts. The reason they cite varies from hostile work environment to disparity in wage. According to the US Census Bureau, the wage gap between men and women in the US is nearly $16,000 annually.

However, a new research by Paysa – a US survey salary firm – indicates that the initial obstacle the tech world needs to overcome is not paying women fairly, but getting them into the company in the first instance.

A report by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) suggests that technology and engineering literacy scores, which measures whether students are able to apply tech and engineering skills to real-life situations, showed a 28-point gap between students from low-income families and their more affluent counterparts, and a 38-point gap between black and white students. If this discrepancy is to continue our country will suffer immensely.

Including more people in the STEM workforce, irrespective of gender and race, is as essential to build a stronger US economy and a better American enterprise. Women might be getting more educated than ever before, however, only 25 percent represent the community in STEM fields. Based on a research conducted by the US Chamber Foundation, the number of women graduates accounted for only 6 percent compared to the 20 percent of the male graduates in core STEM.

The Department for Professional Employee’s report indicates that women made up 57.2 percent of all professional workers in 2015. They comprised 46.6 percent of science professionals, 24.7 percent of computer and math professionals, and 15.1 percent of engineering and architecture professionals.

The lack of women STEM professionals mostly stems from want of role models. With more of boys’ club in the field, a more women-friendly career in the tech industry is the need of the day. Also, with demand for data analysts, software engineers and web developers expected to outstrip supply by 2025, efforts are afoot to equip women to reap the benefits. And now with President Donald Trump’s recent signing of two laws that authorize NASA and the National Science Foundation to encourage women and girls to get into STEM fields, hopefully the figure will dramatically go up.

 

Conclusion

There has been a lot of noise and debate regarding the declining numbers and this is prompting several initiatives by the government as well as top companies. Former President Obama was very committed to STEM. He left no effort in making unprecedented levels of public-private partnerships in STEM education; policies and budgets concentrated on increasing student access and engagement. Now, even President Trump is going all out to promote and encourage STEM education.

Even top companies like Intel had pledged $300 million to train and recruit women and underrepresented minorities by 2020. Several companies are also wooing women, and those underrepresented populations and those with disabilities for STEM jobs to boost overall capacity and diversity.

With all the efforts of the politicians, policy makers, educators, public awareness is definitely increasing. We can see a host of events being organized across the US to promote STEM, such as the annual White House Science Fair initiated in 2010, robotics competitions, Maker Faires among many others.

However, we have a long way to go before we project ourselves as the leader in STEM. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics had projected that about 92 percent of STEM jobs will need some level of related higher education and top companies led by giants like Apple, Facebook and Amazon will have over 650,000 new vacancies to be filled by 2018.

To be able to beat that number, we need more STEM graduates. But most importantly, no more Sean-like stories of switching from STEM to non-STEM subjects. And for that to happen we need to incorporate hands-on learning in classrooms as well as outside in designing, constructing and creating.

As Aristotle had said:

“For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.”

 

How STEM education early on can save the US economy

Melissa, a brand communications professional, always wanted to rub shoulders with the who’s who of the STEM world. She lived in the bubble that once in college she would pursue engineering and thereafter a full-fledged STEM career. She enrolled for a degree in physics, but a few months into it, she realised she wasn’t cut out for the subject. Ultimately, she switched to humanities and ended up majoring in communications.

However, today she is a determined mother, who wants to see her daughter excel and pursue a career in STEM. She wants to inspire her little one as early as possible, as she attributes lack of early motivation to be the main reason behind her switching from physics. But her question is should she start introducing STEM to her four-year-old immediately or should she wait for a couple of years?

This is the dilemma raging in the minds of most parents and teachers as to  when it is the right age or time to introduce STEM to children. They also battle between how and when to introduce the concepts in the early education process.

The answer is simple:

There’s no stipulated age or time to start the basics of STEM, meaning it’s never too early to start teaching your child.

And the ideal way to implement the concepts is by introducing them to nature or your surroundings. It is all about how you encourage your child to think in a more connected and holistic way.

Susan Hockfield, the first lady president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), believes that STEM education should be introduced as early as Kindergarten to enhance children’s enthusiasm, interest and exposure. She feels that waiting to motivate children to take up STEM till they reach college will not boost their confidence level. She also believes that a strong K-6 foundation is required to make STEM learning easier for children. This is testimony to why taking up STEM in college has increasingly led to failure or disinterest.

As they say,

Kindergarten children are confident in spirit, infinite in resources and eager to learn. Everything is still possible.

 

Early education panel experts suggest you don’t need to incorporate digital learning tablets or some fancy technology while teaching STEM to your child. For instance, simply building structures with blocks can make them learn about engineering. Filling their plastic cups with holes drilled all over the cup can make them learn about water pressure. Using lights to create shadows can teach them several important concepts in physics.

These might be simple hands-on activities but can go a long way in helping your little one learn the basic concepts of STEM better and faster. Children are perfectly adapted to learn STEM concepts at a very young age. The only key is to tap into their innate and natural curiosity about the entire environment. It is, therefore, extremely important to catch them young and instil in them the curiosity to ask questions frequently and to dig deeper into the crux of the matter. Let’s take a lowdown of some of the key points as to why it is extremely crucial to start early.

 

Fosters academic excellence

Lilian G. Katz — in her paper “Stem in the Early Years,” — mentions that the best practice for early STEM education is to let children be actively engaged in their own learning. Research also indicates that when you allow your children to take their own initiatives, they reap the benefits long-term.

The Boston Children’s Museum’s “STEM Sprouts Teaching Guide” exhorts parents and teachers to encourage children to ask questions related to “what” rather than the “whys”. According to the guide, ‘what’ will focus on their surrounding and make them conscious of what they are noticing and doing, thus motivating them to investigate and dig deeper; while asking more of “why” means there’s always a ready answer to fall back on. This will make them better communicators, keen observers and confident enough to take on the world.

Studies reveal that children who are exposed to STEM early on fare better in academics than those who are introduced late.

Research also indicates how teachers who are well-equipped to teach STEM play an important role in guiding children, who outperform students with less experienced teachers

One of the best practices in teaching STEM is to make learning more relevant by letting children explore their environment. The more actively engaged they are with their environment and surrounding, the faster they will grasp and learn things.

For instance, instead of creating math worksheets to help teach counting, you can take your children out and help them count real objects in their surrounding like flowers, leaves, benches, pillars etc. This technique will help them learn better as they are learning the concepts in an interesting context rather than sitting in the classroom and learning by rote.

Long-term studies have also shown that when you integrate math and science learning by letting children explore their surroundings, the learning becomes more relevant. Children become more observant as they start identifying objects and exploring patterns, shapes and sizes.

For instance, did you know that the most bridges and constructions have triangular shapes; it is because the triangle offers highest structural strength in geometry.

Children also get inquisitive and start asking questions, thus stimulating their sense of investigation. As this concept keeps them naturally engaged, they not only enjoy their learning process, but also get to develop their STEM skills.

Early education of your children should be to tap into their natural curiosity and give them enough opportunity to be actively involved in their own learning. A natural setting, in all likelihood, will create limitless options to investigate and go in depth, thus helping them strengthen their STEM skills and lay a strong foundation for their learning. The passive, rote-learning technique that most schools adopt should be replaced with an active, hands-on, interactive learning, including do-it-yourself (DIY) activities.

 

Prepares for college curriculum

According to the Census Bureau, about 74 percent of college graduates with STEM degrees switch to non-STEM jobs, including social work, law, arts etc. The switch is mainly because those students do not enjoy STEM subjects as they were not exposed to STEM early on.

Once they reach college, the curriculum seems either boring or difficult to cope with, thus making them go back to their comfort level. Despite the demand for STEM graduates with higher salaries than their non-STEM counterparts, students refuse to pursue STEM careers. This is indeed a bad news for employers and firms that want to fill the STEM positions.

It has been observed that children who are introduced to STEM early on, set the stage for their college curriculum later. Besides scoring higher in the SAT and needing less remedial classes when they start college, these children are most likely to pursue a career in STEM with confidence. Since they have a better understanding of foundational STEM practices, they develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills. STEM experiences also provide children with inspiring, engaging and relevant contexts in which to implement and learn several skills they are working on.

Therefore parents and educators should remember that children require high-quality early STEM education that will shape their minds and beliefs, which in turn will see them transition into successful STEM professionals. Also, educators should consider several ways they use technology as a learning tool and encourage children from being media consumers to media creators that will focus on using them for collaboration, communication, documentation, discovery, research and exploration.

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Can fill the skill-set gap

According to a 2016 jobs report by CNN Money, there are about 5.8 million STEM job openings in the US that are awaiting to be filled. But there are just not enough skilled professionals to fill the vacancies.

This skill-set shortage can be critical to the economy, as companies lose hundreds of dollars in a day, creating a negative impact. Several economic projections point out that there’s a need for 1 million STEM professionals than the US can churn out at the current rate in the next 10 years. STEM jobs have increasingly grown by 17 percent compared to the 10 percent growth rate of non-STEM jobs.

One of the key factors for this slow trend is the late introduction of STEM to schoolchildren. Investing in STEM education early for children is no more a luxury today but a necessity. Encouraging students to use iPads and laptops might make them more tech savvy and might be a step-forward in the right direction.

However, only use of technology is insufficient to fill the STEM skill-set gap. If we want US to stay ahead of the STEM curve, we need our students to learn hands-on and be more interactive by integrating the STEM curriculum in their education early on. Children need to be the creators of technology rather than be the consumers of it.

STEM is undoubtedly getting integrated in most of the US schools, but how many of those schools are introducing STEM early on?

According to the Math and Science Initiative, about 38 percent of students who take up STEM major in college end up dropping out; while 69 percent of high school graduates are not well-prepared to take up college-level science or math. This substantiates the fact that the students do not get the required exposure, support and guidance from their parents or teachers during the formative years.

It had never been so crucial to catch children young and tap on their STEM skills as early as Kindergarten. It is imperative that parents, educators, business and political leaders come together to promote and encourage students to use technology not as consumers but as innovative creators and makers through their classroom curriculum.

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Less reliant on foreign talent

Today we are largely dependent on foreign talent to fill in the STEM vacancies that remain unfilled throughout the country. A report from Brookings indicate that there are about 66 percent foreign students studying STEM as compared to a mere 48 percent of Americans. Also, the number of native-born students pursuing STEM degrees is growing at merely 1% yearly. The dismal growth at this age can be attributed to the fact that students are not being exposed to STEM at an early age despite a lot of talk about STEM and its benefits.

STEM workforce from the US — intrinsic for the country’s national security, global competitiveness and innovation enterprise — has seen a decline compared to the workforce from other developed countries. The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology indicated that the US need to increase its yearly rate of undergraduate STEM degrees by over 34 percent to match the demand forecast for STEM professionals.

Mobilising homegrown talent should be the top priority, besides creating a huge corpus for STEM teacher training and mentoring initiative. We also need to dispel the gender and disparity gap in STEM.

According to the Cornell University Physics Teacher Education Coalition, there is a massive shortage of physics teachers leading to a real crisis-like situation. High school physics is essential for all STEM careers. This shortage is affecting students as they remain unprepared for college STEM curriculum.

A Cornell University study shows an alarming trend that needs to be rectified in order to have home-bred, well-trained teachers. Based on the study, 90 percent of students in the middle school are taught physics, chemistry or general sciences by a teacher without any major or certification in the subjects.

Out of all the other subjects, physics has taken the most hit as there is a severe shortage of well-trained teachers, with only one-third of them having a degree. It was also reported that 52 percent of the high schools in New York do not even offer physics. Also, almost one-third of all physics teachers in high school have taken less than three college physics classes.

Children are always curious to explore and inquisitive about the world around them. However, how far their curiosity is sustained depends on how much support and guidance they get from their elders, parents or teachers. They lose interest in things very easily, if we fail to motivate them by giving them timely solutions or answers. The prerogative should be to guide and foster interest to ignite their minds and ensure early STEM experiences. We should remember that our attitude towards STEM learning will profoundly influence our children’s beliefs and ultimately impact their abilities.

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Conclusion

The US might be in the midst of a STEM revolution today, as STEM takes a forefront with policymakers and educators recognizing the paradigm shift in the economy. However, the truth is that the floundering demographics speak otherwise and the US has a long way to go to be self-reliant on home-grown talent.

STEM includes the most engaging, hands-on subjects, but the way it is taught in schools needs to be more engrossing, more interactive and above all fun to be able to lure and catch the young minds early in life.

There should be more of Melissas coming forward to guide and nurture their little ones early in life to take up STEM so that their children don’t flounder or switch to non-STEM subjects when they reach college and when it is time to begin their careers.

To sum up, it would be apt to quote Brian Kelly, editor and chief content officer of US News:

“While our universities are producing more STEM graduates, many of these students are foreigners on temporary visas. Despite significant public and private investment, we are still not developing an American STEM workforce to fill the jobs of the future. It’s clear that we need to focus our efforts on getting more kids, particularly women and African-Americans, interested in pursuing STEM at a young age.”

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