I'm America's STEM Future, But I Also Need America's Help For That Future

I'm America's STEM Future, But I Also Need America's Help For That Future
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RCE Commentary

People keep saying they're worried about the future of the United States. I am a 16-year-old high school student in North Carolina -- I'm a part of that future everyone is worried about. Should they be concerned? Sure, but I'm also part of an educational organization that breeds young people who will have the knowledge and skills do something about it - and the rest of our country should follow suit.

Our nation has quite a history of innovation behind us, and one can only imagine the new heights that we will soon reach. That future, however, will only be attained with the help of well educated future generations. The position of the United States as a global leader in technology is being threatened as a relatively small portion of our youth are choosing to pursue study in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. President Barack Obama has declared raising the number of STEM-proficient students and educators as a top priority. According to a 2012 report by the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, existing research on STEM degree production rates was used to predict a shortage of 1 million STEM workers over the next 10 years. The need for STEM education has become an increasingly necessary part of preparing our students to keep moving forward.

Today's young people are of a generation that has a profound understanding of the technology in the world around us. Technology provides us with the ability to seize the attention of students and encourage them to consider entering a STEM-related field of study, so it is crucial that we continue to place STEM education as an utmost priority in our schools. It is also imperative that all students, regardless of socioeconomic status, are given the opportunity to study in STEM-related fields and participate in extracurricular activities that foster an interest in STEM. Not only is it essential for our youth to understand how to interact with technology, but they must also learn to think critically in order to solve real-world problems and efficiently utilize technology.

And because we also live in a data-saturated time, where studies, reports and statistics can easily contradict one another, I'm going to skip the data support and let someone else tell you about that. Instead, these are my experiences that explain why STEM education, both in and out of the classroom, is one of the building blocks for the future of our country.

The Technology Student Association is a student organization committed to engaging students interested in STEM through competition, leadership development and opportunities for personal growth. TSA's membership includes over 200,000 students across the United States and abroad. TSA offers a variety of STEM-oriented competitive events from "Architectural Renovation" to "Biotechnology Design" in an effort to make participation a unique and enriching experience for every member. The association is backed by the support of educators and others from business and industry who believe in the need for a technologically proficient society.

From engineers to business managers, our alumni credit TSA as an organization that helped shape their lives - and in fields both in STEM and beyond. YouTube co-founder Chad Hurley, for example, is a TSA alumnus. Guy Cecil, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee was once National TSA President. Music artist Carrie Underwood was a TSA member in Oklahoma.

I joined TSA in the 9th grade and that decision is one that has made a greater impact on my life than I ever could have imagined. Although there are other STEM-related extracurricular activities offered at my school, none are quite like TSA. I experienced my first leadership role in TSA, serving as my school chapter's treasurer during my sophomore year. My school chartered a TSA chapter only two years ago and I was one of the original members of our school's nine-person team. In the two years since, our chapter has expanded to over 30 members. At our second state conference -- also a competition -- we won 14 awards, which was a great improvement over the six awards we won in our first year. Such tremendous accomplishments can be credited to the diligent work of our members and advisors.

Seeing the remarkable growth in my chapter since its creation has inspired me to take on a greater role in the association. At last year's state conference, I ran for North Carolina TSA State Treasurer. The election experience was like nothing I had ever gone through before. Making a speech in front of thousands forced me to step beyond my comfort zone, but the feeling of accomplishment that followed made it worth the anxiety. After a successful campaign, my commitment to the organization grew exponentially as I became the new NCTSA State Treasurer.

Serving as a state officer has provided me with countless opportunities to try new things. I have had the pleasure of meeting with the state officers of other career and technology student organizations to share ideas and take back with me new strategies to help me function as a more effective leader. I have worked with other TSA state officers to plan this year's state conference. I am currently the president of my school's chapter, and the leadership experience I have gained over the past year has allowed me to lead my chapter with greater ease and confidence.

Aside from the numerous opportunities for leadership in TSA, the competition is another aspect that takes the organization to a whole new level. The competitive atmosphere of a TSA competition is absolutely thrilling. The amount of work required for an event is quite intensive, but the results are rewarding - sure, winning a trophy is nice, but even better is the process for learning, growth, collaboration, development and networking.

That said, I - and many of my fellow TSA members - benefit from the ability of our families, supplemented by some corporate sponsors and community donors, to fund our materials for competition and costs of attending conferences. This gets expensive, and consistently fundraising becomes a huge time commitment. These aren't resources that are available to every school community across the country, and simply calling for the establishment of STEM organizations, whether TSA or others, isn't enough to improve opportunities for American students.

It's time we received federal and state funding for STEM programs, combined with local structural support. That funding will go to supplement the thousands of dollars that come from the pockets of our own families, neighbors and community members who support us in our endeavors. It will go toward compensating our chapter and state advisors - science and technology teachers - who take on these roles and put in innumerable hours outside of school without pay. Federal and state funding shouldn't be seen as a cost to taxpayers, but an investment in our country's future.

Technology has become ingrained in our culture and technological advances are changing the way we work and live. The motto of TSA is "Learning to live in a technical world," and the organization strives to prepare its members to not only learn about technology but also to be future leaders in our society. TSA has given me the chance to take a more in depth look into areas of technology that interest me as I begin to consider my future career options in STEM-related fields. Ensuring that STEM education and extra-curricular opportunities are available to all students is critical in guaranteeing that our future generations are prepared to thrive in our technological society.

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