STEM: The Key to Improving American Education

Diverse school children students build robotic cars using computers and coding. Happy multiethnic kids learning programming robot vehicles sitting at table at STEM education science engineering class. By insta_photos

We have come to rely on the innovation of the modern era: smartphones that help you keep in contact with anyone anywhere; Alexas that will tell you the weather or turn your lights off; the ability to reach out to a consultant that will help you establish a strong financial plan; engineers that help orchestrate the construction of bridges and highways that keep us connected. But still, we want more. With all that has been accomplished now, it’s almost difficult to think of what lies ahead for us.

Therein lies the potential danger of innovation and creativity becoming stagnant.

Science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) is the foundation for our growth as a nation. We wouldn’t have our smartphones or Alexas or even the Covid vaccine without the STEM industry.  It’s proposed that by 2025, we will need to fulfill 3.5 million STEM-related jobs. Rectifying this employment gap begins with the youth. Strengthening STEM education in the American school system is the first step to ensuring we can keep up with the times.

Children are Born Scientists

We love watching babies grow up. You can’t do much with a newborn other than engage in intense eye contact and communicate through sounds. The fun begins when the babies begin to roll over, sit up, walk, and talk. It’s important to recognize that these babies are learning how to learn. They are taking in the world around them, and using problem-solving skills to figure out if I move this way, this happens, or if I move my lips this way, this sound comes out. 

These problem-solving skills only get stronger with the introduction of a strong educational foundation, specifically in STEM-related subjects. 

International STEM Education

Presently, America is fortunate enough to claim the position of being the greatest superpower in existence. However, if we don’t make adjustments to our education to gain a competitive edge over other countries, we risk the possibility of losing this title. Already our STEM-based education is falling behind. 

For the past 20 years, China has produced the most STEM graduates in the world. They have the opposite problem from the U.S. —they have more STEM graduates than their labor demand can handle. Whereas, while we do have this massive 3.5 million positions in STEM that need to be filled,  the top five degrees being pursued by the class of 2022 in the U.S.  are business, nursing, psychology, biology and pre-med. 

So, who is helping fill this gap in the industry? 

An estimated one million international students come to America each year to pursue higher education, and 52% of these students follow the STEM industry. But for us to fill these positions as swiftly as possible, it has to start at home. And that begins with strengthening our primary school education.

In 2021, The National Science Board finalized a study that analyzed the test scores of Americans on two levels: how the average test scores of 4th and 8th graders have changed from 1990, and how American students compare to those internationally. The results were less than satisfactory. From 2007 to 2019, the average test scores in math for both 4th and 8th graders have been stagnant. Our educational systems are falling behind due to this stagnancy, while other nations are flourishing. 

This same study compared the science, mathematics, and computer literacy scores from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). This program includes 37 different countries within The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The results left much to be desired. Out of the 37 countries, the U.S. ranked 7th in science and 24th in math, placing us below the average OECD score. For reference, the top five countries with the highest math scores were Japan, South Korea, Estonia, Netherlands and Poland. Similarly, regarding science, the top countries were Estonia, Japan, Finland, South Korea and Canada.

A Call to Strengthen STEM Education in America

According to Pew Research Center, 75% of scientists from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) claim that the lack of STEM education in the United States for grades K-12 “is a major factor in the public’s limited knowledge about science”.  In fact, 46% of these scientists think this limited knowledge stems from the fact that the STEM programs in place are “below average”. 

The National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as “The Nation’s Report Card,”, which tests the math and reading scores of 4th and 8th graders, released the scores for 2021 this past September, and it has caused the media to go into an uproar. Many companies, such as CNN, are claiming that this decline in test scores is a result of schools having to close during the pandemic. However, this is a problem that has been taking place for over a decade. If we don’t change the curriculum to include more STEM-based education and teach children the skills to help them learn how to learn, stagnancy and decline will continue to be the standard for K-12 education.

For this reason, many schools are beginning to outsource education programs to help elevate their students’ STEM education.

PORT-Able Learning Labs

When discussing the need to further implement STEM programs in schools, it makes sense that Corpus Christi would take the initiative in the Coastal Bend region. Presently, the Port of Corpus Christi supports more than 94,000 jobs in varying industries from maintaining wind farms to unloading cargo ships. The port collaborated with Learning Undefeated to create the PORT-Able Learning Labs. This partnership began to plan ways to introduce STEM education into schools back in 2021. The hope is that the learning labs will help establish a strong educational foundation and skills that will allow students to eventually fill the labor demand. Similarly, with the advancement of this education and technology that will come, hopefully, the students will be able to establish new roles and solutions for the labor force.

“Investing in STEM education is the key to economic vitality for our region, the state and the nation,” said Sean Strawbridge, Chief Executive Officer for the Port of Corpus Christi. “It requires us to invest in our youth, as they will be the ones who will chart the course for the communities we serve for years to come.”

Every aspect of the labs is meant to encourage students to engage with all aspects of STEM education. The walls of the labs are composed of touch screens for the interactive gameplay that is implemented into the curriculum. The lessons taught within the learning lab are then carried back into the classroom for further analysis. Because the labs are being used across the coastal bend, each participating school gets to utilize them for two weeks.

Presently, the PORT-Able Learning Labs offer two courses: Engineering in Agriculture for grades kindergarten through second grade, and Chemical and Physically Changes for fifth through eighth grade. 

With the release of the 2021 test scores, along with The National Science Board’s study, it’s now more imperative than ever that we look at the data: our educational system needs help. Children need to learn how to learn, and love to do so. This can only be done by either outsourcing more programs like the PORT-Able Learning Labs or adjusting our curriculums. The future of innovation depends on the education of these youths.

Author Bio

Anastasia Zoe Vastakis is one of the editors for SHALE Magazine. She graduated from Texas State University and was previously a writer/intern for Austin Womans’ Magazine.

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