A New Dawn for STEM Education

Despite California's 11 percent unemployment rate, high-tech industries face the challenge of filling a wide range of highly skilled positions that are central to the most advanced industries in the world. Our nation's future depends on remedying this mismatch in supply-and-demand by preparing our children to take jobs and build careers in these thriving industries.

Industries born right here in the Bay Area, like information technology and biotechnology, are critical for our State's economic vitality. Half of our nation's biotech venture capital investment is in California. The Bay Area remains the worldwide information technology hub, and today about 260,000 Californians work in the biosciences alone. The innovations these workers create not only help our state, but are vital for our nation's continued economic prosperity and health.

To prepare the next generation's workforce for success in these industries, we must provide our children with a solid education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Statistics coming out of our schools is disheartening. Fourth and eighth grade students score near the bottom in national achievement tests. Forty percent of the state's elementary school students receive less than one hour of science a week!

In addition to serving on the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, I am a member of the House STEM Education Caucus. As an appropriator I was able to secure a $1 million increase, from $8.5 million to 9.5 million, in funding for the Minority Science and Engineering Improvement Program (MSEIP), the first increase in 7 years. The MSEIP supports improvement in science and engineering education at predominately minority institutions and increases the participation of minorities in STEM careers.

I have also worked here in my district to draw together local companies, nonprofits and educators to ensure that a career in the information technology, engineering and science fields is attainable for every child in this community.

We see the fruit of this collaboration in the form of a first-of-its-kind event taking place here in the East Bay -- STEM Career Awareness Day. A product of collaboration between local companies and the Institute for STEM Education at Cal State East Bay, this event aims to provide high school students with a hands-on experience in a career in the STEM disciplines.

This private-public collaboration is central to preserving this region's leadership in our current, knowledge-based economy. And this kind of first-hand exposure is particularly important to making these careers within reach for all members of our diverse communities -- particularly women, low-income students, and students of color, who are too often shut out of STEM careers by socioeconomic barriers.

The crisis in STEM education calls for industry to explore its role in providing paid internships for students, curriculum development, teacher training and classroom presentations -- as well as funding facilities. Industry can also emerge as a powerful voice, insisting that we educate our students to become not among the last but first in the world in science and math achievement. I am glad that so many of our East Bay companies are onboard in this effort as they understand the industry advantages of creating a diverse pipeline of K-12 students motivated and prepared to pursue degrees and careers in the STEM fields.

But more remains to be done.

The STEM gap is a real and complex issue. We cannot overcome the challenges we face without the collaboration of educators, parents, industry partners and mentors and policymakers with the courage to fight for bold investment in STEM education.

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) represents California's 9th Congressional District in the House of Representatives and is a member of the House Committee on Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Subcommittee.