Inspiring Eureka: Rethinking Math and Science Education

October 7, 2012

By Cheryl Oldham

This summer, NASA's "Curiosity" rover made its first test drive on the surface of Mars. The mission stoked international fascination, as images beamed back to Earth showing the space vehicle moving about. The rover's successful interstellar journey is a breathtaking reminder of the power of modern science.

Now that it's October, it's worth recognizing that everyone involved in the Mars mission was a student once. And somewhere along the line, these professionals had science and math teachers who inspired them to pursue a career in the final frontier.

But today, that inspiration is slipping. Student proficiency in science, technology, engineering, and math -- known as STEM -- is tragically low. The United States ranks just 31st globally in student achievement in math. Annually, fewer than 60,000 American college graduates earn degrees in the top five engineering majors -- a number woefully insufficient to fill industry needs and fuel innovation.

It's imperative that educators inspire the next generation of students -- not simply to staff the next interstellar adventure, but because STEM proficiency is vital for thriving in the 21st century economy.

In recent years, job growth in STEM-related industries has outpaced the rate in other industries by more than 300 percent. By 2014, STEM companies will create 2.5 million new positions -- and that number is expected to continue to grow exponentially.

The benefits to studying and practicing STEM are clear.

In 2009, the most recent year of data, the average yearly wage for a worker at a STEM company was $77,000. That's over $30,000 more than the national average.

Beyond salary, the work done at these companies is exciting, fulfilling, and important, whether it's helping build a valuable new feature for Facebook, helping build a new medical records system critical to health care reform, developing simulations for manufacturing products we export to transform lives in developing countries, designing more precise satellite systems for our nation's defense, or researching breakthrough cancer drugs.

Regrettably, not enough students are sufficiently proficient to take up a STEM-related career. Too many simply lack interest in these subjects. Without major improvements in STEM education, the United States is going to suffer a serious talent shortage.

Technology and science-dependent firms desperate to hire qualified workers to build the next generation of breakthrough products will have little choice but to look to other countries that have a stronger educational base to supply STEM talent, like India and China. As companies find talent overseas, that's where jobs will go -- and American innovation will falter.

That's a disastrous future. These are precisely the positions we want available to our children and to future generations.

Fortunately, there is a clear way to improve STEM education in this country: Increase the number of classroom "eureka" moments that can inspire a life-long passion for these subjects.

Many who choose to pursue an education in STEM subjects have in common a moment in their youth when the power of science and technology really hit home. It's easy to imagine a future Nobel Prize winner citing participation in the Team America Rocketry Challenge as the inspiration for choosing a career in science. Such experiences are more powerful than any textbook or lecture.

One of the best ways for schools to cultivate those eureka moments is to team up with the companies that bring ideas to market.

Lego, for instance, provides schools with "STEM kits" so students can make robots or other creations using their knowledge of science. These are precisely the kinds of products that can stoke interest in math and science. Likewise, Raytheon's MathMovesU program uses virtual thrill rides, national competitions, and scholarships to special events to show students just how exciting STEM subjects can be.

American schools should embrace these outreach opportunities. Oftentimes, it takes just one moment to inspire a career in math and science. Today, all too few American students have that opportunity.

Working with private industry, educators can cultivate the "eureka" moments that inspire a life-long passion for science and technology. Together we might inspire future travels to Mars, along with continued innovation and economic growth for America.

Cheryl Oldham is Vice President of ICW.

Crossposted from The Huffington Post.