Growing the STEM of our Future

November 29, 2012 | The University

For years, I’ve called our country’s tepid proficiency in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, a national security problem.

That’s not an exaggeration. Our nation’s borders may not be in imminent danger. But our ability to produce a workforce capable of leading a global economy is compromised by the gap between the projected need for more scientists, engineers and technically proficient workers and our ability to prepare a diverse workforce with the requisite skills. According to the National Science Foundation, over the past quarter century, the science and engineering workforce has more than doubled in size ‹ and STEM-related employment is only expected to grow. But the U.S. pipeline to advanced study is a leaky one. Far too few students who may be interested in the STEM fields at a young age ultimately earn a degree in these disciplines.

America must take action to reinvigorate our commitment to STEM education, research and commercialization while investing in the necessary infrastructure and human capital.

Five areas are truly critical:

–Ensure that more students are prepared for college-level STEM study. Too many lack the necessary academic skills. As the National Science Foundation reports, relatively few K-12 students reach grade-specific proficiency in science; meanwhile, the Business-Higher Education Forum finds that almost half of STEM-interested 12th-grade students do not have the requisite skills in mathematics or science. We need to utilize summer and after-school programs more fully to supplement coursework.

–Encourage interest and aptitude at all levels of postsecondary study, particularly by students underrepresented in the sciences. While graduate degrees, whether Ph.D.’s or science master’s degrees, are a big part of the equation, we need technically proficient workers at all levels: certificate holders, associate’s degree graduates and bachelor’s degree earners. Increasingly, every field needs workers who are STEM-literate and can operate computers, read blueprints, analyze data and run sophisticated equipment. Across our universities, we need to provide targeted undergraduate research opportunities, summer internships, faculty mentoring and modern facilities.

–Ensure that students at every level are taught by creative, effective teachers educated in the STEM disciplines. President Obama announced a plan this summer to create a national STEM Master Teacher Corps, with highly effective educators mentoring other teachers and advocating for strong STEM education and well-prepared students. Good teachers are critical to student success ‹ and we should consider how to incentivize their work, whether through merit pay or differential salaries.

–Embrace the talents of foreign students and workers by reforming our immigration policies. In our advanced degree programs, we rely on foreign-born students ‹ 50% of our country’s engineering and math/computer science doctorate holders are foreign-born.

But because of tight visa limits, foreign-born graduates must leave the country or face significant delays for a permanent visa. We must reform our immigration policies and create clear paths to green cards for these international graduates. –Establish stronger links with business and industry to ensure that students are prepared not only to participate in today’s workforce but to lead the innovation and discoveries of the next generation. No one doubts that curriculum must be developed by faculty. But particularly in the STEM fields, where new advances and approaches are always being developed, we need to take advantage of the wealth of knowledge in the business community.

There is no greater investment in the future than an investment in education ‹ and that starts with a commitment to developing the skills necessary for a knowledge-based economy. After all, tomorrow’s progress depends on today’s students.

—Chancellor Matthew Goldstein