A September 2010 report about STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education described the challenges and historic opportunities facing the U.S. It was produced by a group of experts in curriculum development and implementation, school administration, teacher preparation and professional development, effective teaching, out-of-school activities, and educational technology. The report was strengthened by additional input from STEM education experts, STEM practitioners, publishers, private companies, educators, and Federal, state, and local education officials. The findings in the 2010 report are still relevant in 2012.
The success of the United States in the 21st century – its wealth and welfare – will depend on the ideas and skills of its population. These have always been the Nation’s most important assets. As the world becomes increasingly technological, the value of these national assets will be determined in no small measure by the effectiveness of STEM education in the United States. STEM education will determine whether the United States will remain a leader among nations and whether we will be able to solve immense challenges in such areas as energy, health, environmental protection, and national security. It will:
- Help produce the capable and flexible workforce needed to compete in a global marketplace.
- Ensure our society continues to make fundamental discoveries and to advance our understanding of ourselves, our planet, and the universe.
- Generate the scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians who will create the new ideas, new products, and entirely new industries of the 21st century.
- Provide the technical skills and quantitative literacy needed for individuals to earn livable wages and make better decisions for themselves, their families, and their communities.
- Strengthen our democracy by preparing all citizens to make informed choices in an increasingly technological world.
Despite our historical record of achievement, the United States now lags behind other nations in STEM education at the elementary and secondary levels. International comparisons of our students’ performance in science and mathematics consistently place the United States in the middle of the pack or lower. On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, less than one-third of U.S. eighth graders show proficiency in mathematics and science.
It is important to note that the problem is not just a lack of proficiency among American students; there is also a lack of interest in STEM fields among many students. Recent evidence suggests that many of the most proficient students, including minority students and women, have been gravitating away from science and engineering toward other professions. Even as the United States focuses on lowperforming students, we must devote considerable attention and resources to all of our most high-achieving students from across all groups.
What lies behind mediocre test scores and the pervasive lack of interest in STEM is also troubling. Some of the problem, to be sure, is attributable to schools that are failing systemically; this aspect of the problem must be addressed with systemic solutions. Yet even schools that are generally successful often fall short in STEM fields. Schools often lack teachers who know how to teach science and mathematics effectively, and who know and love their subject well enough to inspire their students. Teachers lack adequate support, including appropriate professional development as well as interesting and intriguing curricula. School systems lack tools for assessing progress and rewarding success. The nation lacks clear, shared standards for science and math that would help all actors in the system set and achieve goals.
Despite these troubling signs, the U.S. has great strengths on which it can draw. First, the United States has the most vibrant and productive STEM community in the world, extending from our colleges and universities to our start-up and large companies to our science-rich institutions such as museums and science centers. The approximately 20 million people in the United States who have degrees in STEM- or healthcare-related fields can potentially be a tremendous asset to U.S. education.