STEMA few weeks ago I wrote about the STEM industry and what companies can do to drive awareness and promote the career opportunities that exist (STEM Industries Can Learn from Professional Sports). It was just a few thoughts on how we can help close the current and predicted talent gap. As we all know though, it will take a multifaceted approach to solve this problem, so today I want to highlight some news from the education world.

The long term solution clearly involves getting kids interested in science and math early on and being excited to choose those fields when they get to college. Earlier this year STEMconnector, a STEM information database, and My College Options, a college-planning website that uses questionnaires to collect data on students’ interests and career aspirations, released Where are the STEM Students? What are Their Career Interests? Where are the STEM Jobs? (Download the free executive summary.) It reports that interest in STEM majors and careers has been continually rising among high school students for nearly a decade. When it comes to STEM, the focus often seems to be on the technology sector but the report says that the largest number of STEM jobs are in accounting and auditing, and that the manufacturing industry has significant openings for STEM skilled individuals, reminding us that STEM opportunities are broad and varied. The Computing Research Association released similarly positive findings reporting that “the number of new undergraduate computer science majors at Ph.D.-granting U.S. universities rose by more than 29% last year,” increasing for the 5th straight year. This recent Computerworld article covers the CRA’s findings nicely. Their survey also showed that more students are completing computer science Ph.D. programs. All of these are good developments on the STEM education front.

Ensuring that these numbers continue at the high school and college level underscores the importance of learning STEM skills at the grade school level. And it’s not just capturing the interest of some young students but preparing all for a world where those skills are critical, no matter what you plan to do. “Computational thinking,” and the suggestion that it should be taught alongside reading and writing, is an innovative idea promoted by Jeannette Wing of Carnegie Mellon University, where the Center of Computational Thinking has been established with help from Microsoft. The Center’s mission, broadly, is “to promote and advance computing research and advocate for the widespread use of computational thinking to improve people’s lives.” The key here, I think, is recognizing the extensive application and influence of technology and computer science and understanding that we do have to prepare and educate differently.

Computer Science for Fun and Tynker are two examples of the efforts to make STEM subjects engaging and fun, and there are many more (please share your favorites with us!). Based in London, CS4fn’s mission is to “explore how computer science is about people, solving puzzles, creativity, changing the future and, most of all, having fun,” while Tynker is “a computing platform designed specifically to teach children computational learning and programming skills in a fun and imaginative way.” Does it work? Common sense alone suggests yes. Who among us hasn’t seen an 8 year old with a better understanding of hardware and software than many adults? It’s also completely on trend with the buzz word/concept (depending on your POV!) of “gamification.”

Finally, US News and World has a great interview with former astronaut Robert Curbeam about what sparked his interest in science; Making STEM Matter for the Next Generation of Astronauts and Engineers. Curbeam, as a child “would stand at the end of his street and marvel at NASA’s Skylab space station when he could see it floating in the sky. Decades later, as an astronaut, he would see space firsthand and put his STEM skills to use installing and repairing equipment on the International Space Station during several missions.”

When it comes to how to attract and motivate the next generation, Curbeam says, “I think the most important thing is to make it relevant. Learning about how, for instance, combustion worked was very interesting to me because I saw it every day. I understood that that was the key to the automobile, key to how airplanes flew.” One take away for me from his interview was how I can indirectly ensure that science, technology, engineering and math are exciting, interesting and relevant to young students; by supporting things like NASA and space exploration when budget cuts and taxes are discussed. There is nothing quite like looking up into the night sky, dreaming of being there some day and seeing exactly where you will be and what you will live on. We can all work to ensure that future generations are similarly inspired.

I’m encouraged by the news I read and by the attention being paid to the challenge of ensuring that America and its workforce remains competitive and able to meet the needs of our economy and the world we live in. We all can help, and those of us working in or supporting STEM industries and organizations have a special responsibility to pay attention and help support educational efforts on a broad scale and in our individual communities. Inspire and improve STEM education however you can!

Jerry Brenholz
President and CEO
ATR International

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