Even if you don’t have kids, you should care about STEM education in schools. After all, our future depends on today’s students becoming tomorrow’s innovators and business leaders, and that means getting a solid foundation in science, technology, engineering, and math — no matter what field they enter.
Dr. Melanie LaForce, Principal Research Scientist at Outlier Research & Evaluation at the University of Chicago, warns that all students need STEM, even if they plan to make their living far outside of the computer lab.
“All students should learn how to do some coding, even if they don’t plan for a career in [computer science],” she says, in a recent interview with PayScale. “CS education encourages problem-solving and critical thinking skills, as well as familiarity with emerging technology. In today’s world, these skills are absolutely critical for the workplace. The United States needs high-quality, publicly funded STEM education to remain competitive in nearly every industry.”
When we think of STEM, we shouldn’t see an isolated set of skills or even college majors. Nor should we relegate learning opportunities to electives and after-school programs. STEM should be integrated into every subject, every gender, and every group — especially those traditionally underrepresented in these careers.
“Learning code shouldn’t be exclusive to after-school opportunities,” LaForce says. “This is critical to ensuring all students, including those who may have less social capital, are exposed to CS and STEM.”
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STEM Education for All
LaForce says that schools are finally starting to make stride integrating computer science training into formal public education. In the meantime, after-school opportunities have filled in the gaps. Newer programs provide education to students who typically have less access to STEM education. For example, Girls who Code, Black Girls Code, and the National Girls Collaborative provide opportunities targeted specifically to female, non-binary, black or intersectional students.
“Females are dramatically underrepresented in STEM careers, especially CS,” she says. “It’s widely documented that females often feel excluded or unwelcome in a cismale-dominated CS culture. Encouraging all students, especially those underrepresented in STEM, to learn code from an early age will start to populate a more diverse CS culture. We are beginning to see a slight increase in STEM career diversity, and by exposing students early, persistently, and with high quality — this will continue to improve.”
The Perennial Cry to Boost STEM
The U.S. lags behind in math and science scores. STEM education is at risk even in Silicon Valley. The Silicon Valley Leadership Group noted in a report last spring that “while Silicon Valley’s STEM talent is the most concentrated in the U.S., STEM degrees conferred from regional education institutions are growing more slowly than in other regions.” That means that in the tech industry’s own neighborhood, schools aren’t doing enough to promote STEM education. That’s a problem.
Per the report:
In 2015, only 49 percent of Silicon Valley’s 8th grade students met or exceeded the new state standards for mathematics proficiency, and there was significant disparity in proficiency by race and ethnicity. Only 20 percent of Black or African-American students and 21 percent of Hispanic or Latino students met or exceeded standards for mathematics in 8th grade, compared to 79 percent of 8th grade Asian students, and 66 percent of white students.
Where Companies Can Lend a Helping Hand
LaForce notes that tech companies can help fill in the gaps in STEM education, and should — especially if they expect to draw from the talent pool as they get older.
“First, it’s critical that public funds continue to prioritize high quality STEM education,” she says. “However, STEM businesses and organizations can support this movement by partnering with local schools. Employers can support STEM education by giving a talk about their job, bringing students in to see a rich STEM career experience in action, or helping partner with teachers to develop problem-based lessons relevant to the real-world.”
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