Why We Must Embrace STEM Education

To paraphrase an old saying, it will take a village to make our children employable and our nation competitive.

It’s the time of year when parents are filled with pride as well as great relief that their sons and daughters have achieved a major milestone:  graduation. When Junior, attired in cap and gown, walks across that auditorium stage to receive a hard-earned diploma, it will signify completion of a critical chapter in an academic career. As you celebrate that momentous occasion and start packing bags for college, however, the question you must ask yourself is whether your children will truly be prepared for the brave new world of work that they will eventually face.

Graduation from a college or university no longer serves as a guaranteed ticket to a decent-paying job much less a lucrative, long-term career. So whenever I talk with young people about their future, I encourage them to embrace STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and other such areas that will make them competitive in today’s global economy.

Our children’s prospects are dwindling at a time when 95% of senior executives at the nation’s 1,000 largest corporations lamented that the U.S. is in danger of losing its global leadership in science and technology due to a lack of talent, in a study commissioned by Bayer Corp. Another 55% of those surveyed reported that their companies were experiencing shortages in these areas. Moreover, 80% of them said their companies continue to have challenges recruiting women and minorities for STEM positions, which currently represent some of the nation’s highest-paying jobs (see “Where The Jobs Are,” Workplace, this month).

A recent speech by Education Secretary Arne Duncan to the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology confirms the bleak outlook. He maintained that only 23% of college freshman declare a STEM major—that’s roughly 15% of the total student population of 3.6 million. Moreover, only 40% of those that choose STEM majors during their freshman year actually receive such degrees within six years. According to Duncan, the prospects don’t look much better at the secondary school level: In science, American eighth graders lag behind their peers in eight countries while 15-year-olds are behind in math when compared with the same age group in 31 countries.

For African Americans, the situation has become increasingly dire. According to the latest figures from the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (NACME), African Americans received 3.3% of bachelor’s degrees in engineering in 1995;

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