The United States has long been a global leader in innovation and entrepreneurship. But a 2012 report from the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) highlighted a growing problem - we are not on track to maintain this historical preeminence. The reason: our country's workforce skills gap.
The U.S. Department of Commerce estimates 1.2 million unfilled jobs in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields by 2018 due to a lack of qualified workers. In our nation's elementary, middle and high schools, we aren't engaging, inspiring or preparing enough students to solve this STEM shortage in the decades ahead. According to the PCAST report, the U.S. needs to increase the number of students receiving undergraduate STEM degrees by 34 percent annually over current rates to meet economic demands. And these are just the undergraduate degrees. There are millions more jobs that require an associate's degree or technical certification.
At the K-12 level, it is clear we are failing our students. We are not equipping them with the knowledge and skills they need to be successful, nor are we inspiring and engaging them in the STEM subjects. When ranked against students from other countries, our students perform at or below average in science, reading and math. The 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings from the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development showed that American students scored 23rd in science achievement and 30th in math ability out of 65 countries.
The countries that consistently perform at the top include China, Singapore, South Korea and Japan. We must do better. We must improve our focus on teaching the STEM subjects, but also our focus on teaching students the vital skills they need to succeed - skills such as problem solving, critical thinking and collaboration. Math and science classes are too often filled with memorization; as a nation, we're too often focused on teaching to a test. We must make learning relevant for students. We must show them why they need to learn math and science and how the subjects are relevant to everyday life.
Despite all of this, there are pockets of excellence. Last month, a delegation of science and technology leaders from South Korea visited Los Angeles for a chance to see firsthand what American students are doing in STEM education. The delegation included the director general of the Federation of Busan Science and Technology (FOBST), an organization dedicated to supporting science curriculum and education for students in Busan, South Korea.
The organization I proudly lead, Project Lead The Way (PLTW), had the opportunity to host the group. We took them to Da Vinci Science High School, a certified PLTW school, where they visited with students and teachers in several of the engineering courses. The South Korean visitors were highly impressed with the students' immersion in their learning in just the first month of school. Students were engaged, they were working together, and they were learning the content through their hands-on activities and projects. At the end of the delegation's visit, they were so inspired by what they observed that they requested to attend Project Lead The Way's teacher training program next summer.
The workforce our students will join is a global one, and other nations are busy preparing their students to compete. Through programs like Project Lead The Way, we can ignite and inspire students' creativity, innovation and problem-solving skills. We can show them why subjects like math and science matter, and we can regain the excellence we've long experienced as a nation. But we have to start in each classroom. And we have to start now.
Dr. Vince Bertram is the president and CEO of Project Lead The Way, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to developing high-quality STEM curriculum and teacher training. PLTW programs are used in over 6,500 schools across the United States.