Donald Fry: STEM education: Coaxing young people back to the basics

 

By Donald C. Fry

Virtually everybody in business, government and education agrees that ramping up knowledge of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) among young people in Maryland’s school systems and colleges is essential for the development of a workforce that can meet the needs of future employers.

So, three years after the development of a STEM strategy for Maryland by a high-level gubernatorial task force, how are we doing?

The task force’s recommendations, along with other STEM plans formulated by Maryland’s public school system, the University System of Maryland and colleges throughout the state, have galvanized educators and business advocates around the concept of steering young people back to the basics of math and science.

Today, STEM is squarely on the radar in Maryland. Minions of policy-makers work on a myriad of strategies and tactics for strengthening STEM curriculums in public schools and for whetting student interest, as early as possible, in learning STEM subjects.

In Maryland, STEM education initiatives are plentiful on Web sites and in school systems. The state Department of Education’s extensive STEM strategy includes a STEM Educator Effectiveness Academy, and places a STEM coordinator in school systems in Baltimore City and every county.

Local school systems in the state have been awarded more than $8.5 million in government grants during the last four years for specific STEM education projects, according to the Maryland State Department of Education’s Web site.

Meanwhile, the University System of Maryland’s strategic plan for 2020 includes goals to triple the number of STEM teachers graduating from the system and to increase by 40 percent the number of STEM graduates produced by the system.

In the private sector, business-driven organizations such as the Greater Baltimore Committee (GBC) and the Maryland Business Roundtable for Education (MBRT) are pushing hard for government policies to build a stronger, knowledge-based workforce.

A highly-educated workforce that meets business needs is one of the eight core pillars for a competitive business environment included in the GBC’s “Gaining a Competitive Edge” report compiled by business leaders and economic development experts.

MBRT initiatives include the development of STEMnet.com, a Web site that will serve as a resource hub for teachers. Partners in the web project include IBM and state and federal departments of education.

While STEM initiatives in Maryland are still ramping up, they have yielded some encouraging early results. Within the University System of Maryland (USM), the number of overall STEM majors increased by more than 3,000 and upper division STEM majors increased 28 percent between 2007 and 2011, according to USM data.

The accelerating demand for college-level STEM programs at Maryland colleges is reportedly close to reaching the current limits of some colleges’ abilities to meet the demand, prompting institutions to add STEM classes and instructors.

This is all good news for our state, which currently produces less than a third of the STEM teachers and less than two-thirds of the STEM graduates projected to be needed by Maryland schools, businesses and industry by 2020, according to the USM’s “Powering Forward” plan.

Meanwhile, the issue of post-high school STEM education doesn’t just apply to students seeking four-year college degrees. Adult learners are the fastest growing population at community colleges, reports Martha Smith, retired president of Anne Arundel Community College (AACC), where the average age of students is around 27.

AACC is among a network of community colleges in nine states to develop one-year certifications that are nationally-portable in STEM-related occupational disciplines. This is significant, as a number of STEM-related jobs in the private sector do not require four-year degrees.

It is incumbent on the business community to work closely with education leaders and advocates to keep promoting to our region’s young people the benefits of not only majoring in STEM programs, but of acquiring the superior thinking skills that derive from learning math and science, enabling them to succeed in any profession – technology or otherwise.

“When students see how their knowledge works and what they can do with it, it’s exhilarating,” USM Chancellor William E. “Brit” Kirwan said.

Economically, STEM education relates directly to being competitive. “China and India are eating our lunches – people need to learn the international language of mathematics,” MBRT’s June Streckfus said.

How can business professionals get involved? For starters, they can volunteer to participate in MBRT’s fall speakers bureau, where business professionals talk with 8th and 9th graders in their classrooms about where they want to go in life and how to get there.

They can also work through the GBC and its Education and Workforce Committee to promote policies that ensure STEM education coordination between K-12 and colleges, where currently close to half of Maryland’s high school graduates need remedial courses in math.

Maryland and our nation face substantial challenges when it comes to workforce knowledge. Increasingly in Maryland, business owners and managers are facing a brutal reality: despite our high-ranking education system, far too many students graduate from high school without the knowledge and skills they need to succeed.

Joining efforts to lure our young people back to the basics isn’t just about academics. It’s about our economic future and quality of life.

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