James Simons, president of Euclidean Capital LLC, board chair of Renaissance Technologies, and former chairman and professor of the math department at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, said it comes down to one problem: too few highly qualified teachers.
“Without knowledgeable teachers, you’re going nowhere,” he said. “Everyone wants to know why we don’t have [more highly] qualified teachers, and the answer is so simple: because if you are able to teach math at a high school level, you are also qualified to work in STEM in the private sector. Being a teacher is not attractive—you get little pay and no respect.”
He continued: “You can train teachers all you want, give them tons of professional development, but the career of a teacher is not good. You might even capture a few STEM teachers, but after a while, you won’t be able to keep them.”
Simons said that’s why he helped create Math for America, a nonprofit organization that pays math teachers on top of their school salary. The organization also provides a community for these teachers by offering luncheons, meetings, and more.
“When you give them respect and a decent living, you’d be surprised what a difference it can make in retention,” said Simons.
Charles Vest, president of the National Academy of Engineering and president emeritus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said that public perception needs a makeover.
According to Vest’s data, university students about to start their courses were asked if they wanted to go into STEM fields. Of those women saying they wanted to study science, 30 percent never graduated with a STEM degree. Of those men saying they wanted to study science, 20 percent never did.
Engineering is worse, with 50 percent of both men and woman who originally wanted to major in engineering never graduating with an engineering degree.
“We need to work on the message,” said Vest. “We don’t need PSAs, we need the entertainment industry to get on board. For example, the rise in forensic science majors jumped thanks to CSI—in fact, the creator of CSI tried to do a show based off of computer tech, but he couldn’t sell it. will.i.am. is also doing a good job of promoting STEM education. We need to foster national support for a national interest.”
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