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Closing the STEM Skill Gap

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There has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth during the past several years about American student’s “skill gap” in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). From a 2010 speech by President Obama to a 2014 study of hard-to-fill job vacancies by the Brookings Institution, the shortage of Americans qualified to fill key positions in STEM industries has been the subject of commentary, social science research and educational reform.

All of these discussions point toward the challenges the United States is experiencing — and will continue to experience — regarding job opportunities, innovation and overall economic growth.

STEM in Maryland

This topic is particularly relevant here in Maryland, where STEM-related industries account for millions of dollars in economic activity. In a Baltimore Sun article on June 23, 2013, Scott Dance wrote that there is a need for STEM skills in nearly one in four Baltimore-area jobs. Nearly a year later, in an April 8, 2014, commentary in the Sun, Jennifer Bodensiek noted that, in Maryland, there are approximately 6,000 STEM openings a year, but the state produces only 4,000 STEM graduates each year.

This reality has led to organizations like the Maryland Business Roundtable for Education, among others, to focus attention and effort on developing Maryland as a STEM leader.

As the need for highly-educated STEM individuals grows, so do the educational challenges — and opportunities. In a 2009 Review of Economic Studies article, Benjamin F. Jones noted that knowledge accumulates as technology advances. Jones goes on to say that successive generations face an increasing educational burden. He describes this as the “burden of knowledge.”

The Maryland Business Roundtable for Education, and other groups like it around the country, have responded to that “burden of knowledge” with efforts to improve STEM education for America’s high school and middle school students.

The Youngest Learners

Far less work has been done with our youngest students, which is where the greatest potential may lie.

Children, who are enthralled with characters such as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, My Little Pony and the Pokemon series, seemingly have no difficulty in distinguishing one from another. They are able to learn volumes of facts and fine distinctions relating to these fictional characters.

Children’s capacity for nuanced understanding of the differences among cartoon characters’ attributes begs the question of their capacity for other kinds of learning.

If children can readily distinguish between the four Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles at such an early age, could they grasp basic concepts in physics, chemistry and biology (science)? Could they compare and contrast the seven simple machines and the basic operation of a computer (technology)? Could they analyze the basic structure of a suspension bridge (engineering)? Could they grapple better with numbers and orders-of-operation — and logic (mathematics)?

How early can children grasp these concepts? Could basic STEM concepts be incorporated into lessons when kids are first learning to read?

The answer appears to be yes. STEM-immersed children (who start as early as preschool) will feel less intimidated by STEM concepts in middle and high school. They’ll try harder and achieve more. Both boys and girls will be more prepared for and more likely to pursue STEM majors in college, rendering them qualified to apply for STEM jobs where they are desperately needed (and can make a good living).

Integrated Learning

Significantly, as Cathy Davidson, Paula Barker Duffy and Martha Wagner Weinberg point out in a March 5, 2012, Washington Post article, “science and technology are meaningful when interwoven with all other modes of learning.” In other words, much like the characteristics of any given Ninja Turtle, STEM concepts are more easily learned when integrated with storytelling, art, music or other humanities-based activities.

The need for interwoven learning modes is broader than STEM and the humanities. Jessica Lahey reported in a May 5, 2013, article in The Atlantic that when schools integrate one curriculum supplement into students’ “learning, they report higher academic performance, improved attendance, reduced violence, fewer disciplinary issues, reduction in substance abuse and less vandalism.”

The ingredient that has such a positive effect in schools is character education: life skills like teamwork, empathizing with other people, developing creative solutions to problems, accepting others regardless of differences, effective communication, spending money wisely, and seeking and accepting help. A solid foundation in character education can help future STEM professionals, and all students, reach their greatest potential.

Integrating STEM, humanities and character education for children of all ages happens in many spheres. There are important roles (if unequal ones) for educators, parents, grandparents, legislators, business leaders and other community members to play in the process.

The timeline for success is years or decades, not weeks or months; but the potential payout for industry, the arts, medicine and education is huge.

Gary A. Stewart is the co-founder of Entelechy Education, in Columbia. He can be contacted at Gary@enteletons.com or www.linkedin.com/in/gstewart55555.