Engaging Future STEM Leaders

Engaging Future STEM Leaders
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In February, President Donald Trump signed the Inspire Act and the Promoting Women in Entrepreneurship Act, two laws aimed at increasing the number of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) jobs. The science and education communities collectively rejoiced to see STEM – and particularly initiatives to break down barriers many face in accessing STEM education and entering STEM fields – elevated as a national priority so early in the new administration.

The legislation comes at an important time for our economy and has direct benefits to the American worker. Demand for STEM jobs is expected to grow 17 percent between 2014 and 2024, and the median wage for today’s STEM jobs is nearly double that of all other jobs. 

That explains why STEM is a national priority for employers and lawmakers alike. Multiple bills introduced so far and currently being debated in the 115th Congress recognize the importance of opening STEM opportunities to all Americans and the impact STEM proficiency can have on our current and future workforce. The Energy Workforce for the 21st Century Act would increase the number of skilled workers in energy- and manufacturing-related fields. The Youth Access to American Jobs Act would establish a pilot program to promote apprenticeships and other job training programs with an emphasis on STEM. The Early STEM Achievement Act would establish a grant program for early childhood STEM activities. These and other bills show Congress is signaling they understand the importance of STEM and STEM education.

These developments can’t come soon enough. Today, companies are struggling to find skilled workers for STEM jobs. Next year, an estimated 1.2 million jobs in these fields will go unfilled, and the number of related degrees granted by U.S. universities has declined since the 1970s.

There is a growing chorus of voices declaring that fixing the STEM employment gap and the lag in U.S. global performance in math and science starts with early science education. Many experts agree, including Bill Nye of Science Guy fame. “The reality is STEM education needs to be a priority long before a child reaches high school,” Nye said.“We have to start even earlier and make sure that the science curriculum in our schools fosters interest in STEM.”

While Nye is right, it’s easier said than done. Young students love science activities, but by the time they graduate from high school only 16 percent are even considering a STEM major. Elementary educators struggle to fit science education into a school week jam-packed with preparation for standardized testing in other subjects. And since many elementary educators don’t hold degrees in STEM subjects, their confidence in teaching hands-on science lessons in the classroom can be shaky. Furthermore, science equipment can be prohibitively expensive for school districts.

Addressing these challenges will require more than legislation alone. Our nation’s teachers and the classroom activities they use must engage our young learners in STEM and then keep them interested in it until they decide on their career path. 

Fortunately, efforts are underway to empower these teachers to instill confidence, equip them with the right tools and help students recognize the satisfaction that can be gained by grasping STEM principles. Across the country, more than 55,000 students in 40 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico competed in local and state level competitions throughout the 2016-2017 school year to be among the 42 students that recently competed in the National You Be The Chemist Challenge in Washington, D.C. While there could be only one 2017 National Challenge Champion – Ananthan Sadagopan of Massachusetts – the tens of thousands of students who participated throughout the year are reaping the benefits of learning more about the world of science and the opportunities a strong STEM education can provide.

The Challenge is just the tip of the iceberg of the Chemical Educational Foundation’s year-round programming dedicated to inspiring young learners to pursue science-related education and careers. Activity guides bring fun and inexpensive hands-on science to K-8 learners while professional development workshops prepare educators and industry volunteers to engage STEM students in any setting, including public, private, charter and home schools as well as after-school programs. CEF increases accessibility to STEM through programs that are free for teachers, schools and families, and enrich science education for students both inside and outside the classroom.

Supporting educators, supplying lesson plans and engaging elementary and middle school students in a competition to spark their interest in science before they reach high school are critical components of instilling a life-long love of science that can lead to more STEM majors and a 21st-century jobs-ready workforce. CEF and other STEM-focused groups look forward to working with industry partners, the Trump administration and members of Congress to continue the important work of making STEM education accessible to our future leaders in all walks of life.

Dwayne Sattler is the Executive Director of the Chemical Educational Foundation.

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