The new global economy demands a robust workforce, flush with technical know-how.
Unfortunately, education in the United States of America has been failing to meet this need. According to the U.S. Department of Education, American students rank 17th in science and 25th in mathematics among industrialized nations. Despite encouraging signs that lucrative STEM jobs will be greater in number and more accessible than ever in the near future, a national Microsoft survey concluded that only 49 percent of American parents of K–12 students believe STEM education is being treated like a top educational priority.
To combat this underachievement, organizational and individual entrepreneurs are changing this status quo with ideas that are shifting the way our country educates its children in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Consider Vince Bertram, who was a high school principal who understood the state of STEM education in American classrooms and decided to do something about it. In 2001 and 2002, Bertram implemented the Project Lead The Way program in his Lafayette, Indiana high school.
“What we were really focused on was that we had a high percentage of our kids dropping out of school [because] students didn’t have the skills and knowledge to be successful after high school,” Bertram said. “When Project Lead The Way was implemented, we just saw a transformation of our school.”
Now, Bertram serves as the organization’s President and CEO. Project Lead The Way prepares American students to participate in the global economy by providing middle and high schools across the country with rigorous STEM education curriculums. PLTW’s curriculums are created jointly by teachers, university educators, engineering professionals and school administrators. This ensures that students have access to the equipment, methodology and hands-on experiences that prepare them for continued learning.
“It fundamentally changes the classroom,” Bertram shares. “It’s not a teacher and a lecture as a disseminator of information; rather, it’s the teacher as a coach, a facilitator encouraging students.”
It’s working. In more than 4,700 schools in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, Project Lead The Way is helping students perform better, preparing them for both college and careers, and narrowing the achievement gap. By training both students and teachers, PLTW helps ensure there is a strong pipeline of STEM-educated students waiting to fill the jobs of the future by focusing on the teaching of real-world skills that are necessary for any occupation.
“What we really teach are problem solving, critical thinking, leadership and collaboration skills,” Bertram explains. “Those are the skills that we want students to acquire, so that they can apply those skills across any discipline, any career they choose.”
In much the same way, Linda Kekelis of Techbridge is bringing much-needed STEM education to a subset of the American student body – girls.
“We saw that there were so many opportunities for kids in our area,” explained Kekelis. “But knew that most of our students wouldn’t be finding their ways to those opportunities – not because they couldn’t, or they weren’t smart enough, but [because] they didn’t have opportunities or expectations or didn’t know about options like that.”
While women consist of 48 percent of workers in all occupations, they only represent 23 percent of STEM workers in the United States. Dr. Kekelis, an expert in gender equity and teacher training, has helped Techbridge to provide 4,000 girls in grades 5-12 with after-school and summer programs, as well as the support networks to maintain their interest in pursuing science and math as a career path. What began as a single program at the Chabot Space & Science Center in Oakland, CA in 1999 is now a citywide movement, based in mentorship, to get young girls interested in pursuing science and mathematics for the rest of their lives.
“We heard from our students that they wanted to make the world a better place, and they didn’t see how technology or engineering was compatible with that,” Kekelis said. “We started to introduce our girls to role models who could showcase career options in STEM.”
Much like her colleague in Oakland, Dr. Cordelia Ontiveros, Associate Dean of the College of Engineering at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, has spent her career bringing STEM education to underrepresented students.
“We’ve been very successful working with our local schools and our local teachers to encourage additional numbers of Hispanic students to pursue a degree in engineering,” Ontiveros shares, adding that the number of female Hispanic freshmen at Pomona has doubled in the last two years.
Dr. Ontiveros also engages with the next generation of engineering students through comprehensive outreach, including to schools that have implemented Project Lead The Way curriculums. About 100 of the 3,000 teachers trained to teach Project Lead The Way programs come from Pomona every year. Having worked with some of the largest engineering firms in the world, Dr. Ontiveros knows full well the value of a diversified engineering pipeline – and why enhancing the pipeline now will produce tangible benefits well into the future.
“There are a lot of possibilities out there for [students], Ontiveros said. “Science, technology, engineering and math are all pathways where they can help improve the world around us, make an impact on the economy, and have a very rewarding career and a very rewarding life.”
These innovators show the growth potential for American education, and ensure that American students have every door open to them as they prepare to fill the jobs that will move the country forward.
STEM: How to Educate for America's Future Article Series