Recruiting Talented STEM Teachers Is a Must for our Kids and Country

To build a STEM pipeline for our country of youth with skills to make it in the workforce, we really to focus our attention to quality teacher recruitment. Think about the competition. Most computer science majors and engineers have a line of corporate suitors at career fairs willing and able to recruit them out of school for good pay. Wining and dining great candidates in these fields has made a comeback. Do these candidates know that teaching the NextGen is also a great option to bolster their careers and strengthen our nation?

Last week I had the terrific opportunity to moderate a panel on the challenges -- and opportunities -- we as a nation face in making our Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) teacher workforce the best it can possibly be. This means recruiting those individuals who are deeply passionate about, and competent in, STEM subjects to the classroom, and presenting teaching to them as a career option every bit as legitimate as becoming a doctor, engineer, or accountant.

For many readers I'm sure this raises the question, "Why should I care about STEM teachers?" While you might not work directly in education, or perhaps your children are well past school-aged, the reality is that the quality of our country's STEM education affects us all.

Our kids aren't globally competitive in math and science, and the inequity is even worse within our own borders. Out of 31 developed countries, the United States ranks 25th in math education and 17th in science education. This gap disproportionately and unjustly affects students from minority and low-income backgrounds. Twenty-nine percent of schools with the highest minority enrollment offer calculus, versus fifty-five percent with the lowest minority enrollment. Inequalities like this create a system where entire pockets of the country don't have access to the STEM skills that will make them successful in work and life, threatening not only their personal well-being but our country's domestic health, economic success, and position as a global innovator.

Representatives from the Department of Education, 100kin10, New Leaders, Amgen Foundation, and Teach For America - the latter two serving as event hosts - surfaced two key misconceptions that have proven big obstacles in encouraging STEM-minded individuals to enter education.

The first misconception is that being a STEM teacher and a STEM innovator are mutually exclusive. While teachers may not be in a laboratory every day, they are absolutely spearheading the innovations that will move our country forward. Not only are they training the next generation to navigate ambiguity, think analytically, and act strategically -- thus enabling future leaders to break new ground for the collective good -- but they're also pioneering cutting-edge education methods themselves. Teach For America alumnus Miriam Altman is hoping to eradicate absenteeism with her mobile platform Kinvolved. Another program alumnus, Irene Hseih, is helping create a healthy living curriculum that had kids as young as six planting community gardens, mapping nutrition access in their city, and writing letters to their Congressmen. These folks are taking the societal challenges they've encountered while teaching and tackling them head on - for STEM enthusiasts who want to change the world through innovation, there couldn't be a better place to start than the classroom.

The second misconception concerns the idea of a non-stop career train for STEM professionals -- that once you get off the set corporate track, there's no chance to get back on. Or worse, if you don't enter a traditional STEM industry right after college, you never will. Again, this is false. I've been working in STEM and entrepreneurship education with a big math and tech focus for 22 years and have dipped my toes into many aspect of the field, from teaching to growing a nonprofit to leading cross-sector partnerships. And I can tell you that life is long enough to both pursue your STEM passion and positively impact your community through teaching.

I am inspired by Teach for Americas focus on STEM after spending time with Melissa Moritz who directs STEM and is a dynamo and their team. It's a great option for college graduates and professionals looking to do just that. The organization recruits, trains, and supports outstanding individuals of all backgrounds who commit to teach for at least two years in under served schools and go on to become lifelong leaders in pursuit of educational equity. And as it turns out, of the over 8,500 alumni of the organization's specialized STEM Initiative (launched in 2006 in partnership with the Amgen Foundation), teaching is the most common career. So while you can absolutely use your teaching experience as a foundation to affect change at a different stage of your STEM career, you might just find education to be your life's calling.

It is our moral obligation to provide all kids with the strong STEM education required to be pioneers and innovators, leading to a future of personal and professional success. To do this, we must recruit a diversity of talented and invested STEM leaders into classrooms.

Last week's panel was eye-opening, but it was only a first-step. No matter our vocations, there are actions we can all take to help fuel the STEM teacher pipeline. Colleges can offer more support to STEM undergraduates. Fewer than 40 percent of students who enter college intending to major in a STEM field complete college with a STEM degree, often never fully realizing their STEM potential. By making STEM majors more supportive and inclusive, colleges have the ability to bring a wonderful diversity of backgrounds to teaching.

School and district leaders can set up booths at college career fairs, ensuring their teaching positions are seen on the same field as investment companies and consulting firms. Recruiters can eye this great opportunity here and collaborate with educational institutions advising and bringing best practice to the process.

And individuals like you and me can lend a supportive nudge to friends who say they've always wanted to pursue teaching, but worry that it's not the "safe," "smart," or "practical" career move. After all, what could possibly be more safe, smart, or practical than ensuring a future of prosperity for our kids and country?