It’s a tough truth. In math and science, American students rank far below their international peers. So as the world accelerates towards technologically advanced everything, will American innovation fall behind?
We created the Colt revolver. The vacuum cleaner. The hearing aid. The light switch. The jukebox. The oil well. The metal detector, the microwave oven, the AC motor, the sewing machine. We developed Morse Code and cable TV. We implanted the first artificial heart. We built the first computer and set up the Internet. We flew the first airplane and landed on the moon.
So what happened? Probably a combination of things. According to the National Science Foundation (NSF), “During the economic turbulence of the 1970s and 1980s, it became clear that industry and academia had become estranged from each other. Manufacturing-related scientific research at the universities wasn’t making it out into the real world quickly enough, if at all.”
Furthermore, NSF explains that to succeed in today’s hi-tech society, “students need to develop their capabilities in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) to levels much beyond what was considered acceptable in the past.”
Some call it the STEM Crisis or the Skills Shortage. America simply isn’t producing enough STEM graduates, and so our tech firms are pushing to expand visa programs and hire more foreign workers to fill the gap. Meanwhile, other countries like China and India have gained a competitive edge in qualified labor. In electronics alone, Asia is responsible for 90% of the world’s research and development.
What are we doing about it? Since the 1980s, various public and private entities have worked to bridge the gap between STEM supply and demand in America. The shortage of STEM grads means we lack qualified researchers and practioners as well as qualified educators to stimulate growth in STEM fields. Thus our problem is two-fold.
One approach involves offering incentives like scholarships, loan-forgiveness, and higher pay aim to attract more teachers to STEM fields. According to Time Magazine, Math For America provides $100,000 fellowships for math teachers and Partners in Science gives science teachers the opportunity to undertake actual scientific work at national laboratories during the summer.
Another approach involves exposing students to STEM subjects early on and amping up primary and secondary education to better prepare students for these rigorous careers. Scholarships, hiring bonuses, and other attractive incentives target students as well. Many STEM programs are working to retain entering STEM majors (60% of whom will switch to non-STEM majors after taking intro courses), and they are pushing for greater enrollment of women and non-Asian minorities, who currently hold a disproportionately low share of STEM degrees.
The US Department of Labor projects that 2 million STEM-related jobs will be created by 2014. Post-recession job growth is great news, but that projection gives us less than 2 years to prepare 2 million workers for STEM careers. It seems the gauntlet has been thrown. Can we rise to the challenge?
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