Does your student ever complain about their math homework? Groaning and pouting, they might even add, “I’ll never use this in real life.”

Sadly, many American students have been led to believe that statement is true. Due to outsourcing of skill and manufacturing over the last 40 years, the American education system has discouraged its own students from pursuing certain areas of expertise.

In this version of reality, students really won’t need to use advanced math and science in their real lives. They can use a Google search, for goodness sake.

But is that how we want the future to be? Do we want to leave the future up to students who rely on an internet search to answer their questions? Or do we want to entrust our nation to students who can apply their knowledge to problems and solve them—students who can innovate new technology that will help protect and lead America into a successful future?

If the latter option is the reality we want, then we need to explore the state of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education in America.

Because the consequences of ignoring it might just be fatal.

What is STEM?

The National Science Teaching Association defines STEM education as an “interdisciplinary approach to teaching science, technology, engineering, and math….STEM instruction integrates key concepts between two or more STEM disciplines.” STEM subjects help students “[study and] apply the practices of science and engineering to real-world problems.”

Students who choose to follow these disciplines will typically land a “STEM job” once they launch their career. Common STEM jobs include positions in engineering, architecture, scientific occupations, cartography, and Information Technology (IT)—which is, by far, the most common STEM occupation today.

According to a 2015 study by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Seven out of the ten largest STEM occupations were computer related…computer user support specialists and computer systems analysts each accounted for over a half a million jobs [in America.]”

But oddly enough, even though these jobs are prevalent in America, it isn’t Americans who are rushing to fill them.

America’s STEM-employee vacuum

If Americans aren’t rushing to fill up their STEM workforce, then who is?

In an interview with NWEF in June 2021, Vinson Palathingal—an Indian immigrant, serial entrepreneur, Asian-American community leader, and a free-market advocate—shed some light on this phenomenon.

“I was helping people to come [here] on H1 visas…to fill the vacuum that we have in STEM jobs…to take these jobs that are available in America in plenty,” he says. “India produces a lot of engineers, and they come here [and] they work for NASA, IBM. [For instance, at] IBM: 30% of the staff—Indian. Take NASA, about 35 %—Indian. And it’s all because we train engineers [in India, but we] don’t have enough jobs there so they come here and they start working for these organizations.”

There was a time when America led the world in STEM academics. In an American Affairs article titled “America’s STEM Crisis Threatens Our National Security”, writer Arthur Herman remembers an era when the U.S. was pushed to achieve global greatness in science, technology, engineering, and math.

When the Soviets launched the first artificial satellite, Prosteyshiy Sputnik-1, into orbit around Earth in 1957, America experienced a wake up call.

“The world had a new word—Sputnik—and the United States a new mission: to close the gap in the race for space with the Soviet Union. That urgent sense of mission triggered a revolution in American education. This revolution was spurred not only by the desire to win the space race, but also to get a generation of young Americans excited about and educated in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—what would be abbreviated as STEM,” says Herman.

A desire for victory in the Cold War and the preservation of freedom and democracy in America drove this educational revolution.

But what has happened in the decades since then?

Sadly, “since then, STEM has been a perennial concern for American education experts and politicians. Beginning in the 1980s, there have been new and growing worries that STEM proficiency is declining in America, and with it the future of America’s economic and scientific leadership,” Herman concludes.

From Palathingal’s viewpoint, Americans have “fallen into this easiness of ‘you don’t really need to do that, we have people coming from outside to do this kind of work.’”

The end result is that Americans are discouraged from pursuing STEM careers.

The State of Stem in America

How did we get here? What is causing America to fall behind in this area?

One of the reasons why Americans are not filling up STEM jobs is because they are not learning the necessary fundamentals as children to launch them into those positions in the first place.

When Palathingal sent his son to school in the USA, he noticed that there was little focus on math, science, and technology. “The math that we teach [in America is] much less rigorous than I’ve seen in India,” he says. In an international comparison, math scores have been declining in America over the last 20 years, according to the Pew Research Center.

But it’s not just math scores that are suffering. The Pew Research Center goes on to highlight other academic areas—showing some surprising declines in other realms of American education related to STEM.

“One of the biggest cross-national tests is the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which every three years measures reading ability, math and science literacy and other key skills among 15-year-olds in dozens of developed and developing countries. The most recent PISA results, from 2015, placed the U.S. an unimpressive 38th out of 71 countries in math and 24th in science. Among the 35 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which sponsors the PISA initiative, the U.S. ranked 30th in math and 19th in science.”

In addition, the New Jersey School Boards Association notes that “many [students] aren’t properly prepared to pursue a STEM career. Not enough of our youth have access to quality STEM learning opportunities and too few students see these disciplines as springboards for their careers. According to the U.S. Department of Education website, only 16 percent of American high school seniors are proficient in math and interested in a STEM career.”

With these falling scores and low levels of interest in STEM, America has been forced to outsource large portions of her manufacturing and IT industries. “[That’s why] we take our manufacturing services to China, we take our IT services to India. This is all because we don’t have enough people to take the jobs that we have produced in this country,” says Palathingal. “In today’s world—for us to remain on the cutting-edge—we really need to have at least a good percentage of what we need to be produced here.”

Herman supports his perspective: “Today China is the world leader in number of STEM graduates. The World Economic Forum reported that China had 4.7 million recent STEM graduates in 2016, and India had 2.6 million new STEM graduates, while the United States had only 568,000.”

Herman identifies this disproportionate competition as something that Americans need to pay attention to for the sake of our future safety as a country. “STEM leadership remains just as vital to our national security—perhaps even more so now than when Sputnik was launched.”

According to Successful STEM Education, there are a few problems in the American classroom that need to be addressed. “Compared with the highest-performing nations on the international TIMSS [Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study] exam, U.S. state STEM curriculum standards … are less focused, with too many topics covered in each grade; less rigorous, with students studying more basic topics; and less coherent, with an often illogical progression from topic to topic.”

Improvement begins now!

It’s time to revamp the system’s approach and begin making STEM education more accessible and appealing to American students.

If we don’t equip them to preserve their own future, who will?

Herman believes that schools must “incorporate new thinking about how to teach math and science as well as old—old, that is, in terms of best-practice models, including those of countries that consistently outperform us in the international rankings.”

He recommends that the U.S. take a look at how Japanese or Taiwanese classrooms are achieving their STEM education and draw from their instructional practices. “The United States might also borrow more from Norway or Estonia, which consistently score very well on international tests like PISA, and which could provide constructive models for STEM education in American schools” he concludes.

In the spring of 2020, the National Science Foundation released a promising vision report in which they stated, “All citizens can contribute to our nation’s progress and vibrancy. To be prepared for the STEM careers of the future, all learners must have an equitable opportunity to acquire foundational STEM knowledge. The STEM Education of the Future brings together our advanced understanding of how people learn with modern technology to create more personalized learning experiences, to inspire learning, and to foster creativity from an early age.”

Their objective will “unleash and harness the curiosity of young people and adult learners across the United States, cultivating a culture of innovation and inquiry, and ensuring our nation remains the global leader in science and technology discovery and competitiveness.”

Although STEM education seems to have gone out of fashion in the United States, it’s absolutely crucial to revive it—now more than ever.

America’s future economic prosperity and national security depend on it.

Make a difference.

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