“Investing to ensure a pipeline of workers skilled in STEM competencies
is a workforce issue, an economic development issue, and a business imperative.
And the best way to ensure return on these investments is to
start fostering these skills in young children.”
JD Chesloff, Executive Director
Massachusetts Business Roundtable
Commentary in Education Week, March 6, 2013
What is STEM and why do we need it?
Before we can make the case for starting STEM at the beginning of a child’s educational experience, let’s discuss the objectives of the STEM education movement in this country. The acronym, STEM, was coined by the National Science Foundation (NSF), which realized that for the U.S. to maintain competitive in a global economy, it must increase student proficiency, excellence, and participation in the areas of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.
So first and foremost, STEM is both an economic and workforce development imperative. The goal of STEM education is to prepare students for the 21st-century job market and a 21st-century world. The fields of STEM are where all the innovation and creativity is and will take place, creating the new products and services and the new companies and industries that will create wealth, offer well-paying jobs and fuel our nation’s economy. This is what often gets lost in the conversation.
It’s not about the best and the brightest:
It’s about every single student
This is one of the most dangerous misconceptions about STEM. It is the belief that advanced STEM courses are only for students who intend to pursue STEM-related careers. STEM education is not solely about ground-breaking discoveries in medicine, colonizing Mars, microprocessors, and dating apps. STEM is increasingly becoming a life skill. Some basic level of STEM literacy is required to navigate a complex world where we are increasingly called on to make complex decisions—from the types of medical treatments for a particular illness to understanding public policy such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) and the impact of fossil fuels on our environment.
Second, it’s difficult to define a STEM job because so many industries across the board now require workers who have STEM skills and knowledge. The stark reality is that students who enter the workforce without basic STEM literacy will be largely left with nothing to do. Even blue collar jobs are requiring more robust STEM skills. For example, 3D printers are revolutionizing the manufacturing industry, providing companies with the ability to produce custom, on-demand products without the investment in massive plants or an assembly line of workers. Jobs in additive manufacturing, which will require STEM skill sets, will range from software and design engineers to printing technicians.
Another example of the way that STEM is raising the ante when it comes to blue collar professions is automobile mechanics. Our cars have become sophisticated pieces of technology with wireless remote entry, GPS navigation systems, driver override systems, autonomous (driverless) capabilities, and the like. As a result, aspiring mechanics will need some basic knowledge of engineering as well as technical skills and knowledge.
Millions of jobs will disappear
Technology is moving at an astounding pace. It has eliminated millions of jobs and will eliminate millions of additional manual, entry-level, and repetitive jobs. For example, the invention of driverless cars will reduce or eliminate millions of jobs in the transportation industry—from those who earn a living driving trucks, taxis, buses, trains to those who fly airplanes and navigate barges. It is estimated that there are 250,000 taxi drivers in the U.S. outside of Uber. There are already robots that can clean floors, pick crops, fry hamburgers and even write news stories and blogs, and they will soon serve as our taxi drivers.
The competition is stiff and getting stiffer
At the same time, advances in communications and technology are changing the nature of the workplace. Now it is possible for employers to hire from virtually anywhere in the world. U.S. workers are not only competing against their counterparts in the next town or the next state but across the world. Guess what? The competition will get stiffer. For example, China plans to increase preschool enrollment 50 percent by 2020. For some context, there are 24 million children from birth to age 5 in the U.S. By 2030, China will have 200 million college graduates, more than the entire U.S. workforce.
So why start so early?
The short answer: game on. The stakes are too high to wait until middle and high school.
Cultivating a STEM-literate citizenry and a STEM-proficient workforce are pipelining issues that start at the bottom of the funnel: Pre-K through 5th grade. The more students at the beginning of the pipeline, the more likely we will be able to meet our national goals in terms of cultivating a workforce that can compete and thrive in a STEM economy in a global world.
Second, there is an exciting and powerful link between STEM and early childhood. Young children are natural-born scientists and engineers with an innate curiosity, desire to tinker, create, explore and learn new things. This is also a time of remarkable growth with brain development at its peak. Their little brains are like sponges with the ability to understand and grasp basic STEM concepts: for example, photosynthesis is the way that plants make their own food. Research also indicates that the brain is particularly receptive to learning math and logic between the ages of 1 and 4 and that early math skills are the most powerful predictors of later learning.
Finally, elementary school is the period when students form their identities and their interest in careers. It is the time when children begin to think about who they are and what they can be—and more importantly what they cannot be. Young children aspire to be firefighters, police officers, athletes, superheroes and fairy princesses. So elementary school is when STEM interest and aptitude must be cultivated. There’s no reason that young children cannot aspire to be chemists, structural engineers, software developers and so on. The concept of building STEM identity early is particularly significant when it comes to increasing the pipeline of girls and children of color, who will be the majority of the workforce in 2043. There is a large body of research that indicates that being smart is not enough for these students to pursue STEM careers. These groups must develop a sense of STEM identity, the ability to "see themselves" as someone who knows about and engages in STEM. Increasing awareness of STEM careers and pathways expands all students' horizons as to who they can be and what they are capable of.
The guiding principle throughout our educational system must be to ensure that our students have the knowledge and skills to succeed in the workforce. STEM education prepares all students for the challenges and opportunities that they will encounter in a 21st-century economy. We must stop preparing our children for jobs that will not exist in the future. We must prepare them for the inevitable: a world in which those without the requisite STEM skills will be left in the dark.