Panel: STEM education crisis stems from unsupported teachers

In the president's FY12 budget, $206 million would go to STEM training programs.

According to a panel of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education experts and industry leaders, the United States is still falling short of producing the number of STEM graduates needed to fill 21st-century jobs—and panelists said the problem can be traced to to a lack of support for teachers.

At a Sept. 12 Brookings Institution forum in Washington, D.C., Rebecca Blank, acting secretary of the U.S. Department of Commerce, began the discussion by providing the latest data on the STEM workforce to help paint a current picture of STEM education in the United States.

The data, which come from a recent series of STEM reports published by the Economics & Statistics Administration, further confirm what education stakeholders widely know: blacks, Hispanics, and women tend to shy away from STEM careers, while white males and Asians are more likely to enter a STEM field. (For specific numbers and graphs, see the reports.) Blank said it’s not just important to encourage students to enter the STEM fields so that companies can benefit—it’s good for communities as well.

“Even during this current recession, STEM jobs are stable. Just in 2010 alone, 7.6 million workers had a STEM-related job, and that number is increasing,” Blank explained.

Also, jobs in the STEM fields have a higher average salary than the average salary of all non-STEM jobs, she said—referring to this statistic as a “wage premium.”

“In 2010, there was a 25-percent wage premium for those in STEM [fields]. And for women in STEM, that wage premium increases dramatically—which makes it even more interesting that more women aren’t in STEM jobs,” she said.

The conversation then shifted to why more graduates aren’t entering STEM-related fields. In other words, asked Darrell West, vice president and director of governance studies for the Brookings Institution, “What can we do?”

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. is also doing a good job of promoting STEM education. We need to foster national support for a national interest.”

One woman in the audience suggested reaching out to toy manufacturers, like with Mattel’s Barbie.

“Before, you had housewife Barbie, and then you had Barbies such as ‘Dr. Barbie’ and ‘Veterinarian Barbie,’ and little girls felt it was OK to be like her. We need ‘STEM Barbie’ now,” she said.

Charles Giancarlo, managing director and head of value creation at Silver Lake Partners and a former senior executive at Cisco Systems, suggested that another way to attract more STEM workers is to allow more H1B visas.

“When I worked at Cisco, 85 percent of our entire staff in some way had tech training. Every year, the U.S. produces around 86,000 graduates in STEM. That means that Cisco hires an entire year’s worth of U.S. STEM graduates. And that’s just one company. Clearly you can see the lack of supply for the demand,” he said.

Giancarlo noted that most STEM graduates are foreign-born but cannot get their visas approved to stay and work in the U.S.

“Cisco had to create its R&D program in Vancouver, because Canada accepted those visas, while the U.S. did not. It’s sheer necessity for companies to look for overseas STEM grads now, such as in India and China, because the quality of the graduates is amazing and the abundance plentiful.”

Giancarlo said policy makers also should broaden the qualifications for teaching.

“Many STEM industry professionals who have retired [would] make great teachers and want to share their knowledge and experience. We have to give them the opportunities to do this. Two of my teachers who inspired me to go into STEM were former industry professionals,” he said.

Other ideas that came from the discussion include…

  • Creating a core of master STEM teachers that can be retained.
  • Creating a culture of respect for teachers in the U.S, where teachers are the most highly valued and respected profession.
  • Increasing stipends for STEM teaching and STEM education facilities.
  • Creating a fellowship program for candidates to go into STEM fields and become STEM teachers.
  • Encouraging private-public partnerships that span years, not a single year. (Policy makers must make private companies see the long-term investment benefits of this, because investment in K-12 STEM education would not produce results until roughly 20 years later.)
  • Providing more support for community colleges and two-year degree programs, ultimately helping to cut down student debt for entering STEM careers.
  • Encouraging more universities and high schools to take advantage of YouTube videos and the internet to teach STEM courses and provide STEM professional development. An example is Connections Academy.
  • Pushing STEM development in elementary grade levels. (“You don’t have to have an engineering course in middle school,” said Vest, “but you can make sure excitement is peaked and base-level math and science is mastered, with the word ‘engineering’ mentioned now and again.”)

Blank said the Obama administration already is trying to make some of these suggestions happen.

For example, in the president’s FY12 budget, $206 million would go to STEM training programs. The “Educate to Innovate” campaign, which launched in 2009, aims to foster private-public partnerships. About $205 million in public and private dollars has gone toward training thousands of math teachers as a result of this program.

Finally, the Race to the Top program has provided grants based on the prevalence of STEM education programs and an emphasis on STEM curriculum in states.

“The FY12 budget also has money going to STEM teacher in low-income areas,” said Blank. “Let’s hope this budget gets passed.”

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