Hardly a day goes by that we don't hear or read a news story about the importance of STEM education to our future economic prosperity and global competitiveness. The term STEM was first used by the National Science Foundation in the early 2000s, and now most members of the general public understand that it refers to science, technology, engineering and math.
As of 2011, 26 million U.S. jobs -- 20 percent of all jobs -- required a high level of knowledge in a STEM field, according to a Brookings Institution report. In the latest Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study report published this past December, out of 57 nations, the United States ranks ninth in eighth-grade math and 10th in eighth-grade science. South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan led the international rankings in math and science. Even eighth-graders from Slovenia outperformed their U.S. counterparts.
How will the United States be able to compete in a global economy if we don't prepare our students to take on the jobs of the future? How will we develop strong national security systems if our kids don't understand technology beyond texting their friends?
China and India prepare a higher rate of STEM-ready college graduates than the United States. The National Academy of Sciences estimates that for each U.S. student receiving an engineering degree, about five students receive engineering degrees in India -- and about eight in China.
At Carnegie Science Center, we were strategizing about STEM education long before the acronym came into mainstream use. Our model is informal science education -- the hands-on, fun and inspiring experiences that make kids want to know more. As Carl Sagan once said: "Every kid starts out as a natural-born scientist, and then we beat it out of them. A few trickle through the system with their wonder and enthusiasm for science intact."
Enthusiasm and inspiration are necessary precursors to achievement. They have been the hallmark of the Science Center for nearly 70 years.
More recently, we've developed the Chevron Center for STEM Education and Career Development with strong support and involvement from the regional corporate community. We've added new programs and STEM competitions to our repertoire, launched a television-based public awareness campaign directed toward parents and are working with groups like ASSET and the Math & Science Collaborative on teacher professional development.
All these efforts recognize the challenges our region faces preparing young people for the jobs of the future, most of which require strong STEM skills. Unfortunately, though STEM education has attracted national attention and the efforts of countless schools, businesses and nonprofit educational organizations, the conversation around the meaning of STEM education has at times been vague and tentative.
In order to work together effectively, it is essential that we agree on the working definition of STEM and on what comprises high quality, effective STEM education.
At Carnegie Science Center, we have a modest proposal for such a definition. It's based on the Science Center's longstanding, practical experience in STEM education as well as research on content and best practices in education, such as the National Research Council's A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts and Core Ideas.
Effective STEM education includes:
• Inquiry-based science and math education. The most effective, research-based teaching strategies for science and math build from curiosity and inquiry as guiding principles.
• Integrated curriculum. Teachers of science, math and technology work together to plan curriculum and present instruction in an integrated fashion. Social studies, literature and art are woven throughout. The real world is not siloed by subject content, nor should education be.
• Project-based group learning. In addition to direct instruction in math and science, students should be engaged in projects that apply math and science concepts to address real-world problems. Projects should involve a group approach, fostering team work, cooperation and communication.
• Career awareness. This is a big one. Students must be exposed to an array of STEM-related jobs and have a chance to meet practicing STEM professionals. That's how students can relate the concepts they learn in the classroom to real-life applications and begin to imagine themselves in STEM careers.
Carnegie Science Center uses this definition of STEM education to develop our own programming and in our work with partners on teacher professional development. STEM education built on these principles does not have to cost schools more in these budget-tightening times, but it does require schools to view teaching and learning very differently. The result will prepare our young people for the realities of the 21st century, will assure that our region and our nation have a well-trained workforce and ultimately will revitalize American pre-eminence in science and technology.
Ron Baillie and Ann Metzger and the Henry Buhl Jr. co-directors of Carnegie Science Center (www.carnegiesciencecenter.org).