The Need for More STEM

By Watson Scott Swail, President & CEO, Educational Policy Institute

This week I was fortunate to attend and participate in a Capitol Hill press conference held by the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering, Inc. (NACME) introducing their new data book on the pathways to STEM education and careers.

As data in their new data book suggest, the pipeline of students in STEM education and careers is “far from full” with regard to minority participation.

The importance of STEM education, and more importantly, STEM education for all students, is critical for a global economy and society. If we have learned one thing over the past few decades it is that we are not alone. The United States is not isolated and cannot act as such if we are to compete and succeed in this new economy.

Following World War I, and more so with World War II, the world came to America because we were the land of the free and the land where dreams came true. We created the largest (at the time) and best (at the time) higher education system in the world. We had the highest educated population on earth. With it followed the greatest technologies, grand insight, and also an important role as peacemaker in the world.

During the past century, when the US needed excellence, we went and got it. Sometimes bought it. Our higher education system played an important role in leveraging this effort, because the best of the best came to our shores to learn and earn, and then they stayed, helping us dominate international trade and commerce.

Today, we are falling behind in how we educate our youth and our adults. Other nations have caught up and are surpassing us in secondary and postsecondary education. Many of those who would have come to the US for an education are staying home because, well, they can. They have developed excellent institutions of higher education and can gain most of their higher learning there. For those who do come to America for higher education, they can go home upon completion because there are jobs waiting for them. The political walls and social barriers that existed for decades have been removed in almost all industrialized countries.

The United States can’t buy the world anymore. She cannot simply purchase excellence the way she once could. It must be developed from within.

The US Department of Commerce recently stated that STEM workers are “essential to American innovation and competitiveness in an increasingly dynamic and global marketplace,” and the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce estimate that STEM jobs will increase by 17 percent by 2018. This stated, former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine estimates that 70 percent of engineers in the United States with PhDs are foreign born. We need to produce from within.

To further infuse the point, 6 percent of white workers and 15 percent of Asian workers are currently working in STEM-related jobs. Comparatively, only 2 percent of Latinos and 3 percent of African Americans work in STEM fields. If the truth—illustrated by data—is that not enough white students are entering STEM fields, then the point is further magnified for minority students.

To ultimately succeed in meeting our economic and societal goals, the only pathway to success is to bring the quality of education up for all students, especially those from low-income and first-generation college backgrounds. If we do not do that, we quite simply will not succeed.

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