In the Nation's Interest

The Economic Impact of Early Exposure to STEM Education

As the US continues to recover from the recession, optimism is rising about the health of our economy. A key factor people often turn to in evaluating economic health is the unemployment rate, which has hit a 20-year low in this country while jobs continue to be added monthly. However, it is necessary for us to further evaluate the data to fully understand where these jobs are coming from, and how various sectors of the workforce experience this impact.

The May 2016 jobs report indicated that there are currently 5.8 million job openings (CNNMONEY), which is a symptom of a growing problem in the US: employers can’t find skilled workers for jobs in a number of sectors. Much of this can be attributed to increasing disparity known as the job skills gap. This gap is a critical issue that the country faces as vacant jobs can cost companies hundreds of dollars a day in lost profits and can negatively drive America’s economic growth.

When we look at Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) jobs specifically, economic projections point to a need for 1 million more STEM professionals than the US will produce at the current rate over the next decade, according to the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. STEM jobs alone have grown 17 percent, which is much faster than the nearly 10 percent growth rate in all other areas. Yet the civic infrastructure is not there to support this growth.

One of the most important factors that limits the United States’ ability to stay ahead of the STEM curve is the lack of introduction to these educational areas at an early age. More school districts are providing laptops as resources for their students. Laptops or iPads are great in terms of exposure to technology and a step in the right direction.  However, the use of this technology is not enough to meet the future workplace skills that students need.

This is not the fault of teachers who hope to positively impact the lives of their students through more effective learning tools. Teachers continue to do their job, but education has not embraced the notion of teaching students about technology itself. Students use technology as consumers, but not as innovative developers through their formal education experience.  The need for this at an institutional level is increasingly important, and schools simply do not have sufficient time, flexibility, or resources to offer these types of curricula.

Looking at countries that are leading the way in technological innovation, we find students spend a greater amount of time in education outside of school – traditionally in a tutoring or enrichment capacity. The amount of time that a student spends weekly on their  educational enrichment activities is significantly greater around the world compared to the US. This may be associated with a cultural influence which is directly correlated to the rising importance of education needs in different industries, but can also be attributed to increased importance placed on science and technology solutions provided to students.

In the United States we are in the midst of a STEM revolution. STEM is at the forefront of educators and policymakers around the country. This is now also becoming increasingly important among parents as they begin to see the paradigm shift in the economy that continues to favor individuals seeking STEM jobs versus their counterparts.

STEM is finally being integrated in schools, but not early nor extensively enough. 38 percent of students who start college with a STEM major do not graduate with one, which is reflected by the fact that 69 percent of high school graduates are not prepared for college-level math or science, according to the National Math and Science Initiative. This is alarming and can be traced back to students not receiving the appropriate supports and interventions they need in early grades.

An increasing number of institutions are beginning to immerse students in STEM at younger ages. This exposure is being facilitated outside of school hours and during school vacations, which enables students to understand whether or not they are interested in further pursuing a particular STEM career. Institutions like Zaniac introduce students to skills like computer programming and 3-D printing as early as Kindergarten, and push the envelope through the eighth grade to teach more advanced subjects, such as thermodynamics, physics, orbital mechanics, and more. Such exposure helps promote students’ immersion in science and technology while building their confidence about STEM at a young age.

Creating a positive learning environment that empowers students in STEM is critical to preparing the next generation for the future. The current lack of infrastructure around this educational priority is disconcerting when we recognize the individual and economic benefits of addressing these issues. The necessity for STEM to be introduced at an early age has never been more important. Action needs to be taken on behalf of parents, educators, and business leaders to make sure this comes to fruition.

Sidharth Oberoi is the President & Chief Academic Officer of Zaniac. Guest blogs are the views of the individual and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of CED.