The United States was historically a global leader in all things scientific and technical (after all, we did win the space race); however, that leadership has diminished. Fewer students are pursuing STEM fields, and this trend is also reflected in the number of teachers qualified to provide STEM instruction.
Unfortunately, this downward trend of engagement with STEM education is a real “lose-lose” situation. Not only does the country lose its standing and competitive edge in these arenas, but students are also not getting the preparation needed to fill some of the most exciting and lucrative jobs in the marketplace.
As STEM program provider Project Lead the Way warns, “By 2018, the U.S. will have more than 1.2 million unfilled STEM jobs because there will not be enough qualified workers to fill them. STEM is where jobs are today and where the job growth will be in the future.”
If your child shows interest in STEM subjects, here are key questions you should consider:
What Does High-Quality STEM Education Look Like?
Several characteristics distinguish a STEM program from one that focuses on other subjects. These features include hands-on participation in projects and experiments and a strong emphasis on connecting coursework with real-world applications. Each level of K–12 STEM education should provide a foundation for the next stage of learning and exploration:
In addition to basic skills, STEM education should aim to capture the interest of young students. The elementary program should explore the nature of each STEM field and how it translates into exciting and fun real-world jobs. Ideally, early STEM activities in school are reinforced by out-of-school STEM learning opportunities, such as visiting a museum or shadowing someone in the STEM fields.
Coursework becomes progressively more challenging, emphasizing the academic requirements of STEM fields. Students may begin applying their knowledge through science lab experiments. Middle school programs should provide greater exposure and investigation of careers that spring from a focus on science, technology, engineering, or mathematics. This is especially important for schools that serve populations underrepresented in STEM fields.
Academic rigor increases at the secondary level and focuses in on particular STEM fields and occupations. High school STEM curricula should prepare students to pursue a chosen field in college and future employment. Students should be able to take the necessary courses for their intended career paths. If a high schooler in interested in becoming a vet, she should be sure to take an upper-level biology course. A student interested in aeronautical engineering should take an advanced physics class.
A high-quality high school STEM program will also offer many ways for students to challenge themselves beyond the minimum course requirements. Students should be able to explore the fields of science and math through AP courses or by taking classes at a community college.
Finally, successful programs at this level should provide students with numerous opportunities to participate in extracurricular STEM-related activities and programs, such as a robotics club or a Math League that encourages students to compete against other schools.
How Can Existing STEM Programs Be Improved or Supplemented?
One of the biggest obstacles in creating an excellent STEM program is chronic under-funding of school districts, a problem that results in a lack of essential materials as well as an inability to attract qualified teachers.
There are, however, numerous initiatives aimed at improving and supplementing STEM education at every level, many offering access to funding sources, such as grants and scholarships. Chief among these are the many STEM-related programs provided by the U.S. Department of Education.
Other resources include:
Project Lead the Way, which provides curricula and professional development to STEM teachers
Public Broadcasting System, which provides a resource site for K–12 teachers
SmartLabs (Creative Learning Systems), which offers multimedia, fully-integrated programs designed to meet a specific school’s needs
What Can You Do?
First, evaluate the quality of STEM education being provided to your child. Data on how each state is performing in this area compared to other states and countries is available from the National Science Foundation. Inquire among school administrators and teachers about the curricula and extracurricular activities being provided to students in your district.
If you believe your child’s STEM education is falling short, bring supplemental programs and resources to the attention of school administration and other parents through your parent-teacher association.
Independent of these discussions, consider enrolling your child in the Girl/Boy Scout STEM programs, STEM-oriented summer camps, or other extracurricular programs. Also take her to visit science and technology museums in your area; these institutions often sponsor camps and programs for youth of all ages. Most importantly, share your admiration and enthusiasm for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics with your child.
Hom, Elaine. (2014, February 11). What is STEM Education? Retrieved January 7, 2015, from Live Science
Project Lead the Way. Retrieved January 7, 2015, from Project Lead the Way
Science, Technology, Engineering and Math: Education for Global Leadership. Retrieved January 7, 2015, from U.S. Department of Education
STEM/Nova. Retrieved January 7, 2015, from Boy Scouts of America
STEM Education Resource Center. Retrieved January 7, 2015, from PBS Teachers
STEM Education Data. Retrieved January 7, 2015, from National Science Foundation
Welcome to the Real World of 21st Century Skills. Retrieved January 7, 2015, from Creative Learning Systems