Having a guest speaker who works in STEM come into the classroom is a great way to inspire students, say experts. (Copyright Elemental Imaging)

Having STEM guest speakers in the classroom is a great way to inspire students, experts say. (Copyright Elemental Imaging)

At a time when the global workforce demands more science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) professionals, education stakeholders worry that today’s students aren’t answering the call. To ensure that the United States remains a leader in the global economy, experts say the nation must engage and motivate more students in the STEM subjects, focusing on girls and minorities in particular to help fill future job quotas.

Continuing the national conversation about STEM education in the United States, education and industry experts gathered in Washington, D.C., earlier this month for Intel’s Visionary Conference 2010, with the theme “Technology @ the Intersection of Educational Change.”

The conference began by quoting statistics from the 2009 McKinsey Report, “The Economic Impact of the Achievement Gap in America’s Schools,” which shows that if students from the U.S. were performing as well as just the average student in the best-performing nation, the U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2008 would have been $1.3 trillion to $2.3 trillion higher.

“Couple that with the fact that our STEM industry cannot find qualified workers, which means moving businesses overseas, and there is a large problem,” explained Paige Johnson, global K-12 education manager for Intel. “We can’t afford to leave kids behind anymore; we need all kids to perform well and to have a 21st-century skill set.”

What we know

According to the 2009 Speak Up survey from the national nonprofit group Project Tomorrow, students in high school say it’s important to learn math to get into college and earn good grades. Parents also say math is important to their child’s success, because it helps to develop problem solving and critical thinking skills.

However, when the study gauged student interest in pursuing a STEM career, only one in five students in grades 9-12 said they were definitely interested. Thirty-five percent said they were “maybe/somewhat interested,” and another 35 percent said they were “not interested.”

“What we have to do is cater to those students who are not just definitely interested in STEM, but to those students who are somewhat interested as well,” said Julie Evans, CEO of Project Tomorrow.

The report delved deeper and found that for students who were interested in the STEM fields, summer career exploration programs, after-school programs, competitions, and college scholarships would help increase their interest in a STEM career.

For those students who said they were “somewhat” interested in a STEM career, meeting successful role models, talking to professionals and visiting companies, working with mentors, and watching “day in the life” videos and podcasts would help increase their interest in a STEM career.

“Having something as simple as a guest speaker who works in [a] STEM [career] come into the classroom and explain what he or she does is a great way to motivate and inspire students,” said one conference attendee who works as an educational application developer for Google.

“For example, I’m asked to speak at schools, and when I go into classrooms I ask, ‘Who wants to be an engineer?’ and no one raises their hand. However, after I tell them about traveling all over the world, and working with exciting people, and being able to put my imagination at work, when I ask the same question at the end of the day, almost every student raises their hand.”

Looking to women and minorities

In looking at the students who might not be interested in STEM careers, a large portion typically are girls and minorities. (See “Survey: Women, minorities need STEM encouragement.”)

“Imagine all the students in the state of Texas,” said Ruthe Farmer, director of strategic initiatives for the National Center for Women and Information Technology. “Believe it or not, only 593 students in the entire state of Texas want to major in computer science. This means that even within the state alone, there are not enough skilled students for the number of jobs available.”

Farmer said one way to help fill this gap is by recruiting women.