STEM education is in crisis in the United States. It’s predicted there will be 3.5 million STEM jobs in the U.S. by 2025–incredible news if not for the fact experts believe at least 2 million of those jobs will go unfilled.
However, the excitement of our nation’s return to the moon could help resolve this. NASA’s Artemis mission just launched its first of three rockets after several months of delays. The goal is to ultimately return humans to the Moon, including the first woman and the first person of color, by 2025. It’s an exciting time for space exploration and perhaps the launch pad American educators and employers need to renew students’ interest in STEM education–and in turn, create a pipeline of new technical talent in the U.S.
The Artemis Mission can bring students within the ‘orbit’ of NASA, so that it’s tangible for them. This is an opportunity, not just for educators, but for our whole community to harness the excitement like our nation did with Apollo decades ago and remain competitive with STEM powerhouses, like China and India.
When Neil Armstrong famously stepped foot on the moon as part of the Apollo program, our nation saw an explosion in STEM degrees over the next decade, especially among women. According to an NPR study, in 1981 there was a 250 percent rise in computer science degrees and a 100 percent rise in physical sciences from when Apollo first launched in 1969. We’re hopeful that Artemis will have a similar effect. And with today’s ability to record/broadcast events instantly sharing with millions via social media, perhaps we can create a groundswell.
It’s been 54 years since the Apollo mission first took man to the Moon. This time around, we hope young kids of all backgrounds will see someone who looks like them, with NASA making it a priority to ensure the crew of Artemis includes more diversity.
Currently, Hispanic and Black professionals are underrepresented in the STEM workforce. Additionally, women only make up about a quarter of workers in computing and engineering fields. A statistic that is further observed when we look back at the NPR study. We see that by 2010 the number of women working in computer science dropped nearly as low as before the Apollo program began.
It further proves that representation matters to children because they must see it to be it. We want young minds from all over to imagine themselves on these missions in their future.
Going beyond space
It’s also important to note the mission goes far beyond “the man in the suit.” When we think of a rocket soon to be launched into space, we immediately think of the astronauts staffing the flight. In reality, they represent a minute portion of the people who make these missions possible.
In NASA’s recently released study looking at fiscal year 2021, the agency says its missions, research, and more supported nearly 340,000 jobs across all 50 states and Washington, D.C., with spillover effects permeating the entire spectrum of business activity. NASA employs everyone from aviation, to engineering, biological, physical sciences and more.
But as many opportunities as there are in space exploration, the broad opportunities within STEM can trickle down to Small and Medium Sized businesses (SMBs). We need automation experts at manufacturing plants in Ohio just as much as we need rocket scientists in Cape Canaveral.
And the commercialization of space is becoming a reality with the evolution of companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin. The positive impact to the economy – over $204 billion in annual gross product and 1.7 million jobs – makes career opportunities in this field even more abundant.
What you can do
So, how do we help today’s youth become interested in careers in space, or more broadly STEM, so they may one day fill these positions? The challenge isn’t just to teachers, but to our community, especially those in need of this technical talent.
There are three steps teachers can begin implementing today. Firstly, build a curriculum that engages students; secondly, create mentorship opportunities; and finally, ensure the torch is passed on beyond the classroom.
One of the biggest challenges educators face is making theoretical concepts tangible to students. Implementing projects and experiments will help kids not only visualize a concept but experience it. For instance, having a classroom build a model of the solar system helps them understand the magnitude of space and how it relates to their world here on Earth.
Another important aspect of learning is mentoring because for most children, they need to see it to believe. A visit from an astronaut or the engineer who developed a rocket will create a special moment that will leave a lasting imprint. Seeing another female, another person of color, another person from their background will have the most powerful impact on their perception of what they can achieve in their own lives.
But teachers can only carry the torch so far. It’s also on companies hiring talent to show the possibilities and how STEM fields touch their everyday lives. The forward movement of technology and innovation fuels not just space exploration, but so many other industries. Experiments in vacuum packed meals led to the creation of modern-day infant formula, the clear material created by NASA to protect radar equipment is now used for invisible braces, and the shock-absorbent rubber molding designed for astronauts’ helmets inspired the soles of modern athletic shoes.
If we don’t address the STEM talent shortage, America will continue to struggle to compete with China and India for new developments within technology, engineering, and beyond. We cannot afford to fall even further behind when it comes to innovation.
It is on all of us to keep that spark of curiosity going. Volunteer in classrooms, share stories of your career that ignite passion in STEM fields, and give future talent an opportunity through mentorship and training.
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