A Looming STEM Student Crisis for the United States

There’s a looming crisis in science, technology, engineering and mathematics education in the United States. What can be done to fix this education commonly referred to as STEM?

That’s a question pondered in a recent U.S. News & World Report piece by Harold O. Levy is the executive director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation and Dr. Jonathan A. Plucker, endowed professor of the Neag School of Education at the University of Connecticut. It said, “As students make their decisions about which colleges to attend and contemplate their eventual majors and careers, it may come as a surprise that their decisions are fundamental to our national security.”

Plucker authored a report called, “Equal Talents, Unequal Opportunities: A Report Card on State Support for Academically Talented Low-Income Students.” It grades states on 18 simple indicators representing nine distinct state-level policies and nine specific measures of student outcomes. Not one state receives an A, according to the foundation.

As we all know, national security and defense initiatives like DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) have played massive roles in technological advances in areas like robotics, space travel, and computer networking. Without students interested in STEM education, the potential for innovation diminishes.

The U.S. News article says our national security is an issue of brains, not brawn. A mentally fit fighting force is going to be as important to our future as a physically fit force We’re going to need both David Banner and the Incredible Hulk.

Recent technological cyber attacks allegedly orchestrated by the Chinese are cited in the article. The problem is we can’t fight these attacks through the judicial system. They need to be combatted online. “Yet too few students choose to study engineering, physics, computer science and mathematics, all necessary areas to shore up our cyberdefenses,” the article says.

The STEM crisis can be almost compared to the oil crisis of the ‘70s. Stick with me. It makes sense. Our dependence on foreign oil was heavy at that time. Now our dependence on foreign STEM talent is heavy. After the ‘70s, we started to increase the production of domestic oil, as well as explore alternative energy sources on a wider level.

It’s the time to do the same with STEM. As US News points out, “One traditional solution for our shallow talent pool has been to import talent, but this strategy is showing considerable strain.” What’s the problem? “Government, defense, and aerospace companies can’t hire foreign citizens for jobs requiring a domestic security clearance, yet increasing numbers of jobs in these fields require such clearances,” the article says. We can’t import STEM talent to protect us because of our national security needs.

There is a homegrown source of potential talent being overlooked that points where resources should be directed. US News reports it’s children from low-income families. Its research shows only 2 percent of them reach advanced levels of excellence performance. That is versus 13 percent of students from higher-income families. “High-ability, low-income students have difficulty pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, and often they backslide as they plod – largely ignored – through our schools. If they aren’t given the support they need, we’ve lost them for good,” the article says.

The potential is broken down this way:

  • Closing the excellence gap in math by just half would mean an additional 85,000 high-performing students entering high school each year.

  • Over 1 million students in grades K-12 today could be moved from proficiency to excellence, flooding our society and economy with world-class thinkers, some of whom could help improve our cybersecurity.

The potential is there. According to the Plucker report, in 2013, America’s public schools now teach a population that is more than 50 percent low income, according to the data collected from the states by the National Center for Education Statistics. It said, “In fact, 40 out of America’s 50 states have large percentages (40 percent or more) of low-income students, with higher concentrations in the South and West. Mississippi led the nation with the highest rate: 71 percent, meaning almost three out of every four public school children in Mississippi were low-income.”

The STEM crisis seems like it could be easily solved with an investment in academically gifted low-income students.

Keith Griffin
Keith Griffin is an award-winning business writer and editor with more than 30 years experience as a journalist. His work has been published in The Boston Globe, Medical Economist, Good Housekeeping, About.com, the Hartford Courant, CT Law Tribune and numerous other regional publications.