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Fixing the US STEM problem

By now we've all heard about STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) — and its importance to the U.S. economy. According to the U.S. Department of Education, all STEM jobs in the U.S. will increase 14 percent from 2010-2020, accounting for millions of positions. Yet, data shows that 3 million of those jobs will go unfilled by 2018.

One reason for that is not enough students seriously consider a career in STEM. In fact, only 16 percent of American high school seniors are proficient in mathematics and interested in a STEM career. Partly because of this, the U.S. ranks 25th in mathematics and 17th in science among industrialized nations.

Bill Nye, “The Science Guy,” speaking at the Toshiba/NSTA ExploraVision Gala 2014
Source: Bill Nye
Bill Nye, “The Science Guy,” speaking at the Toshiba/NSTA ExploraVision Gala 2014

Is there an easy fix?

So, how can we fix this problem? Well, first is recognizing that there is a problem. Too many Americans don't see the real-life value of STEM — and that's a shame. What keeps the U.S. in the game economically is our ability to innovate and come up with new ideas, something that can't be done without a strong focus on STEM education. Innovation is what allows the U.S. to compete. And coming up with all of these great new ideas starts with STEM.

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Yet the reality is STEM education needs to be a priority long before a child reaches high school. Although some students who are introduced to STEM in high school stick with it in college and beyond, for many others high school is simply too late to develop long-term interest in STEM subjects. We have to start even earlier and make sure that the science curriculum in our schools foster interest in STEM.

A common criticism of science education is that it is rigid and lacks the excitement of other subjects. That's just silly. Science is the best idea humans have ever had. To help make it more hands-on, the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), developed by the National Research Council (NRC) and the National Science Teachers Association (NTSA), recommend making exploration and experimentation an integral part of science education, not just learning about it from a textbook or a lecture.

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Can our government help?

The U.S. government is already committed to cultivating STEM talent at a young age. The White House Science Fair features innovative projects, designs and experiments from K-12 students across the U.S. Students represent a broad range of STEM competitions. And there is certainly an investment to back up that commitment. In fact, President Obama's proposed 2015 fiscal budget contains $170 million for STEM-related education programs. Existing investments extend to federal agencies, such as The National Science Foundation, an independent federal agency that offers grants in a number of different STEM education initiatives. President Obama in 2009 even created a nonprofit organization, Change the Equation, to close the gap in this area.

However, the burden of turning the tide cannot lie with government and nonprofits alone. Corporations also need to be involved. After all, they stand to benefit significantly from a focus on STEM. Many companies, in fact, are already feeling the pinch from a lack of STEM talent and should take an active role in engaging children who show promise in these areas. Simply put, STEM is connected to our economic success, so supporting this type of education will no doubt enhance the U.S.'s economic standing in the world.

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Investing in the future

One such example of a corporate effort is the Toshiba/NSTA ExploraVision program, which invites students in grades K-12 to propose an idea for technology 20 years in the future based on an existing challenge or limitation. The program incorporates many of the science and engineering practices promoted in the NGSS so teachers can use it to enrich their curriculum with hands-on experiences or offer it as an extracurricular opportunity for their students.

Certainly there are other examples of corporate partnerships, but the truth is there are simply not enough. Corporations have the resources to invest in such efforts—and can even offer valuable professional guidance to students wishing to pursue a career in STEM. It may take some time, but corporate efforts to emphasize STEM education are bound to have a positive effect. So, let's tackle this problem—together.

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Commentary by Bill Nye, an American science educator, comedian, television host, actor, writer, scientist, and former mechanical engineer. He is best known as the host of the Disney/PBS children's science show "Bill Nye the Science Guy" (1993–98) and for his many subsequent appearances in popular media as a science educator. He has been a guest speaker at the Toshiba/NSTA ExploraVision awards gala for over 10 years. Follow him on Twitter @TheScienceGuy.