What's Wrong With STEM Education?

Technology is changing our lives and is redefining the landscape of our economy. An increasing share of jobs will require a background in science, technology, engineering or math (STEM), and those with strong experience will find themselves at the center of our new economy. The U.S. government funnels $4.3 billion every year into STEM education-related initiatives, and while the Administration's efforts are laudable, we must keep in mind some of the shortcomings and challenges we have witnessed to date before we begin promoting the widespread adoption of any particular approach. Three of special interest to me are the demographic achievement gap, the teacher talent gap and accessibility, problems I have witnessed and really would like to see addressed.

One major shortcoming of tech education is the demographic achievement gap. STEM workers are predominantly male, from higher socio-economic backgrounds, and are commonly either Caucasian or Asian. Women and minorities are under-represented in the STEM world, and this has significant consequences as our economy demands that more tech trained individuals assume leadership roles. The fact that 12 percent of black students and 17 percent of Hispanic students completed Algebra 1 before college while 28 percent of Asians did in 2009 underscores the problem. As does the fact that only 18 percent of all engineering bachelor degrees went to women in 2008. Women still have less than 25 percent of all US STEM jobs, and make up only ~20 percent of all AP Computer Science test-takers. Now the reasons women and minorities are underrepresented are various, but they should be considered seriously when thinking about how to invest in STEM education. For women, the issue is less discrimination and more stereotype, interest, lifestyle, and gendered expectation driven. For minorities, it is more teacher quality, exposure, discrimination, and access driven. The reasons overlap, but paying attention to the root causes of these shortcomings can help us address this social justice issue more effectively.

Another issue we face as a society is teacher quality and quantity in STEM fields like computer science. Many, myself included, argue for mandatory instruction of computer science in middle and high school, however there are many practical issues to consider before this can happen, one of which relates to teachers. In 2007-2008, about 17 percent of all high school teachers did not major in the subject they taught. For math, however, it was 28 percent, and this makes sense. People with technical backgrounds are in high demand and find high-paying jobs, leaving few to pursue teaching. Finding qualified computer science teachers who neither want to work at Google nor conduct cutting edge machine learning research at a University will be difficult. We need to either train current teachers in computer science, leverage online materials and instruction, increase incentives for computer science teachers, or design some other creative solution to the teacher talent gap we face.

Perhaps correlated with teacher shortage is accessibility. Only nine states or so allow computer science courses to count for math or science graduation credit, and 14 states do not even have an upper level standard for computer science instruction. If we hope to produce more students trained with the tools they need to contribute in a new technical economy, we have to adapt our curricula and standards as quickly as technology evolves. I understand this is not always possible, but hopefully the brainpower, money, and technology invested in the revamp of our education system will yield results and help prepare us for a more innovative and equal future.