A New Approach for STEM Education

Most Americans appreciate the fact that the world is a very competitive place.  Policy makers and parents have long known that our kids, from grade school through college, need to step up their skills and understanding of science, technology, engineering and math – know in education circles as STEM studies – if they are going to compete successfully with their counterparts in China, India, Korea, and many European countries.  For this reason, for nearly 40 years there has been a lot of interest in improving STEM education.  While it is laudable that we are focusing on STEM education, we are running the risk of tethering ourselves to assumptions that might be a little faulty and outdated.  We can’t be truly innovative as a nation if we are not innovative in our thinking about STEM education.

The current assumption driving STEM education is that all students should get at least some STEM education at every step of their educational journey.  Supply students with high standards, great teachers and get as many kids excited about STEM as possible.  Call this the “some STEM for all” approach.  It sounds appealing, right?  Universal tech literacy for the 21st century.

Well, one problem with this is that most of us are not destined to be scientists and engineers – maybe five percent.  Some of us simply don’t have the acumen and the economy only needs so many engineers and scientists and actuaries.  So why should state and local governments, many of which are in deep financial peril, lavish resources on the “Some STEM for all” approach?  The answer is that they shouldn’t.

Another problem with this approach is that it wants to push young people into studying what might not necessarily interest them and deny the real STEM stars the resources they need to excel.  This is destined to fail.  A successful education experience begins with motivated, excited students pursuing what truly interests them and going where their talents can shine.  Forcing all students to take on AP physics or chemistry is going to have disappointing results during high school and beyond since these fields aren’t necessarily where the jobs are going to be.  Ironically, over 80 percent of the STEM jobs are in engineering and information technology but there is a paucity of courses in these fields at the high school level.  Therefore, the kids with the inclination are not getting access to what excites them – nor acquiring skills that employers actually need.

The time has come to try a more efficient and effective approach.  Flip the paradigm around.   Call it “All STEM for Some.”  It is based on identifying the kids with the most promise and interest in STEM areas early on and giving them the challenging, exciting educational experience. This  will allow them to move into advanced studies and the into the working world ready to contribute to a more dynamic U.S. economy.  Not everyone is going to be Bill Gates.  We don’t need everyone to be Bill Gates.  But we have to make sure we have at least a few Bill Gateses in the years ahead.

Gates’s case actually provides a good example of the wisdom of this approach.  As many of us have learned in the popular book “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell, Gates is a product of brains and hard work.  But just as important, he had the luck to go to fine private high school where a parent with vision and resources provided a computer lab.  This was a time when most universities had not computer lab.  For a kid like Gates, it was heaven.  He spent hours there.  And the rest, as they say, is history.

ITIF fleshes out the idea of “All STEM for Some” and offers up ideas that should be embraced as part of a broader education reform effort in a new report Refueling the U.S. Innovation Economy: Fresh Approaches to Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Education.  The full report will be presented by Rob Atkinson on December 7 during an event called, “Education for Innovation,” a digital town hall discussion on how we can cultivate tomorrow’s thinkers and entrepreneurs to sustain economic and educational success. This live online event will feature an announcement by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, remarks by OECD Attorney General Angel Gurria and a discussion with columnist Thomas Friedman.

Among the ideas in the report is placing a greater emphasis on making sure students can demonstrate skills rather than merely memorize content.  In addition, it would make sense to allow STEM-oriented students to spend more time in those courses and less time on other subjects.  Also, we need to make sure the resources are there beginning freshmen year so we don’t lose the kids who were STEM-inclined but instead nurture them with greater opportunities right away.

In addition, the report urges policy makers to get serious about creating entirely new institutions – STEM specialty schools – and develop the infrastructure to identify and recruit the most promising students to pursue their passions in exceptional world-class educational environments.

We should also revise how we incentivize schools to make their STEM programs more effective.  The report explains this could be done with a combination of federal grant money, as well as corporate or philanthropic efforts.  Bolstering STEM education should be part of needed national strategy to make our national labs, universities and private employers act in a more coherent fashion when it comes to preparing students and workers in critical new fields.

We are not going to be able to develop the game-changing advances in biotechnology, robotics, energy and other fields unless we nurture the talent of our students effectively.  Many of us will want to become artists, teach history, develop real estate, or run our own small business.  That is fine.  But we should get serious – immediately – about how we educate those students who show the keenest interest in the emerging growth fields of the future.  Giving a smattering of science and math to them along with the aspiring novelists is not going to work.  We only have about ten years to make changes in our STEM education so we will have the talent to create the STEM jobs so and therefore compete globally in the years ahead.  The time to get started is now.

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About the author

Dr. Robert D. Atkinson is one of the country’s foremost thinkers on innovation economics. With has an extensive background in technology policy, he has conducted ground-breaking research projects on technology and innovation, is a valued adviser to state and national policy makers, and a popular speaker on innovation policy nationally and internationally. He is the author of "Innovation Economics: The Race for Global Advantage" (Yale, forthcoming) and "The Past and Future of America’s Economy: Long Waves of Innovation That Power Cycles of Growth" (Edward Elgar, 2005). Before coming to ITIF, Atkinson was Vice President of the Progressive Policy Institute and Director of PPI’s Technology & New Economy Project. Ars Technica listed Atkinson as one of 2009’s Tech Policy People to Watch. He has testified before a number of committees in Congress and has appeared in various media outlets including CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, NPR, and NBC Nightly News. He received his Ph.D. in City and Regional Planning from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1989.