Though you might not know it from looking at our educational system, the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) professions and industries are booming and driving the growth of the economy.
In the U.S., STEM employment grew by 10.5 percent between 2009 and 2015, while non-STEM occupations experienced only a 5.2 percent net growth.
In the U.K. last year, the tech industry grew 32 percent faster than any other, and a 2015 study for the European Parliament predicts STEM job openings will increase in all 28 countries in the European Union until at least 2025.
For years, researchers have asserted that teaching young people how to thrive in the STEM industries will help them succeed in this future workforce. However, amidst a climate of science denial, some experts argue that education is lagging behind the rapid economic developments in motion all over the world.
University of Helsinki professor of pedagogy Kristiina Kumpulainen is one such expert. “Society and the demands of the workforce are changing at a rapid rate, as is our perception of what to teach children and what they need to know to survive,” she explained to Scientific American. “The school environment, teaching methods, and the content aren’t relatable or inspiring to them any longer, which creates motivational problems.”
Furthermore, according to Carnegie Mellon University STEM education experts David Kosbie, Andrew W. Moore, and Mark Stehlik, the U.S. is notably behind peer nations. Only about 40 percent of U.S. schools teach programming, and the programs of those that do vary widely in terms of rigor and quality. In one-third of U.S. states, computer science credits don’t count toward graduation requirements.
In contrast, Israel, the U.K., Germany, and Russia have all integrated computer science into their school curricula for children. And while President Obama’s 2016 “Computer Science for All” initiative was an important step, the budget cuts proposed by the Trump administration and the educational priorities of the new Department of Education leadership threaten to jeopardize the program, which is already reliant upon private funding since Congress has not approved its budget.
Research has shown that connecting educational experiences to real-life opportunities is an effective way to get students excited about what they’re learning. Engagement is always an educational challenge, but because young students are prone to perceiving STEM subjects in particular as boring, nerdy, or dull, there are additional hurdles in this area.
When learning happens in a vacuum, without those real-world connections, teachers have an even tougher time engaging students and inspiring them to feel passionate and motivated.
Fun STEM initiatives can help combat these problems.
Apps like Detective Dot, which teaches coding through storytelling, can make learning and applying coding and STEM skills enjoyable and provide students with positive, diverse images of children excelling in STEM subjects. Math circles have been growing in popularity, and these provide an imaginative, safe space for children to learn to love math and acquire new skills.
First Robotics teams, Rube Goldberg contests, and other activities from similar programs are popping up across the country, offering kids a chance to work with engineers and other STEM professionals to build robots for competitions.
To further help young people prepare for future STEM careers, professionals working in those industries can partner with schools to mentor, offer their experience, and present on their work. This kind of connection can show students what working in STEM industries is like and help create exciting learning environments in science classrooms.
“Education is everyone’s responsibility. We should be making sure that students know how subjects relate to the industry,” Kerrine Bryan, founder of Butterfly Books, told Scientific American. “What they are learning at school relates to real-life things, and knowing that helps them to make important decisions, such as what further education subjects they want to study or what skills they want to go into.”