How STEM Education Can Help Our Kids And Our World

Science, technology, engineering, and math are the four subjects that may be most important for our kids to be learning now. STEM education is finally getting the attention it deserves and there are many programs, classes, camps, and museum activities that will let your child learn STEM subjects. We need more scientists and innovators and STEM education holds the key. Building rockets, robots, and other cool contraptions helps kids become creative thinkers and problem solvers and may help them and our world in the future.

Science, technology, engineering, and math: The four core subjects that make up STEM education are now getting more attention than ever, with more programs, classes, camps, and even museums turning their focus to where STEM can lead our world in the future.

The Problem

America consistently ranks poorly against its global classmates in STEM subjects, placing 25th in math and 17th in science out of 31 countries ranked by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Only about 18 percent of high school seniors perform at or above proficiency in science subjects, according to the National Math and Science Initiative. These alarming numbers are forcing America to go back to the chalkboard and evaluate where we stand in an evolving STEM world.

Beyond the classroom, census data reported by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation in 2010 found that only 4.9 percent of American jobs were in science and engineering, falling from a recorded 5.3 percent in 2000—the first such decline since 1950. The result: We’re falling behind the rest of the world in terms of innovation, and the U.S. is losing jobs as companies are being forced to hire overseas workers for STEM projects.

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What’s Being Done

In response to this statistical pitfall, the crucial impact of STEM is being recognized through organizations like the New York State STEM Education Collaborative, which strives “to define STEM and the STEM disciplines in a fashion that will serve as a model for New York State and throughout the nation,” and improves on these disciplines during annual state-wide collaborative summits. Change the Equation, a nonprofit initiative, is working to improve and sustain the national STEM movement through philanthropy, inspiration, and advocacy, even launching a “STEM Is Cool!” video contest to showcase fun and exciting innovations in the STEM world. The STEM Education Coalition offers support to STEM educators and programs within the U.S. Department of Education and the National Science Foundation.

With government funding and growing recognition in schools across the country, organizations like these are focusing on the future. “The 25 Best Jobs of 2012” by US News ranked registered nurses in their number-one spot, followed by software developers, pharmacists, medical assistants, and database administrators, rounding out the top five careers to watch out for in terms of projected growth and employment estimates—all five of which are rooted in STEM education.

As STEM crawls toward garnering the necessary attention it requires for our country to advance, classrooms in the New York area are hunkering down on STEM. In 2010, New York and Connecticut adopted the Common Core State Standards (, which clearly outline consistent learning expectations in mathematics and language arts for America’s K-12 students, in order to best prepare them for higher education and the workforce. For students in grades K-5, Common Core guidelines put a strong focus on grasping fundamental mathematical concepts. High schoolers are expected to be able to apply the concepts and learn how they can be targeted toward a career.

Beyond the Classroom

Lima Hossain, a senior at Brooklyn Academy of Science and the Environment, has felt a love for science since middle school. Hossain took that love and continued to develop it at BASE, where in May 2012, she took home the top prize at the school’s Science Research Day. Hossain’s project, titled “Bacterial Inhibition with Plant Extracts Native to Developing Countries,” found its inspiration in an unlikely place. “The inspiration came from a 20/20 special I watched,” Hossain says. The episode highlighted the challenge of finding clean drinking water in third-world countries, which struck a chord with Hossain. She tasked herself with a research project in which she would use plants native to the area to neutralize the local water. Hossain wanted to find solutions that are “easy, effective, and inexpensive for people.”

Although Hossain took home her prize on Science Research Day, her project is far from over. The teen hopes to continue her research, always keeping in mind that she wants “to mainly help people. That is my main inspiration.” By furthering her STEM education, Hossain hopes to reach beyond the lab and make a difference in the world.

“It’s very important for people to get involved with STEM at a young age,” says Maria Taveras, a 21-year-old science education major at City College who volunteers at the New York Hall of Science in Queens, which offers hands-on STEM-related programs geared toward kids. “We need science, math, engineering, and technology in our lives,” she adds, citing careers with roots in STEM, such as architecture, technology development, and medical advancements.

STEM Is Not Just For The Boys

The following was tweeted recently by Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code, an organization dedicated to sparking the minds of teen girls to embrace and take charge of STEM careers: “For anyone who says girls are not interested in STEM- ?@girlscouts found that 74% of high school girls are interested in STEM ?@GirlsWhoCode.” While that stat may be true, so is this one: Although 57 percent of U.S. bachelor’s degrees are obtained by women, less than 14 percent of computer science degrees are awarded to women.

STEM tweet

STEM careers have an inescapable stigma attached to them that they are male-dominated fields. But for the first time in history, girls are exceeding their male classmates in science and math grades.

In addition to exemplary programs propelling girls to the forefront of STEM education, parents hold a significant amount of power in how their daughters perceive STEM and their involvement in a grander sense. “The lack of exposure to STEM is a big hurdle for young girls,” says Karen Purcell, professional engineer and author of Unlocking Your Brilliance: Smart Strategies for Women to Thrive in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.  In order to overcome these hurdles, parents must encourage girls to not just partake in STEM classes and activities, but to instill in them the belief that they can thrive.

Read Next | Girls & STEM: Overcoming the Hurdles

The Big Picture

Our future in STEM seems bright. Rather than being discouraged by statistics, visionary individuals and programs are taking control of the science crisis and taking measures to not just contend, but also lead a world in which STEM education is crucial to success. To tackle the hurdles in the STEM crisis, it’s our job as parents to encourage our children to try their hands at STEM subjects, whether they simply want to boost creativity in daily life or begin the track to a promising STEM career.

STEM education has the power to impact all of us, whether you’re raising a future Einstein or a more creative-based right-brain child. Here’s how:

• It prepares kids for the technological innovations they will undoubtedly experience in their lifetime. In the past 60 years, technology has changed the way we function as a society, from the invention of the Internet (1960), GPS technologies (1978), to DNA fingerprinting (1984), and of course, the iPod (2001). It’s difficult to step back and consider our current world without these advancements, which makes the STEM-based inventions of the future equally, if not more, exciting and filled with promise.

• It teaches problem-solving skills. “STEM helps kids analyze a problem,” says Dennis Chan, founder and director of RoboMindTech in Queens. “We teach problem-solving through projects that set up a challenge. If a student can’t get their model car to turn, STEM allows them to figure it out. They have to look into the parts, like the steering wheel and axels using engineering, for example.” Once they can identify the problem, Chan says, “Kids gain confidence and can explain the challenge through real world examples.”

• It is infiltrating pop culture. In an age when techie greats like Mark Zuckerberg are household names, it’s never been cooler to be a member of the school computer club. A study by the Afterschool Alliance found that participants in STEM-themed clubs have “improved attitudes toward STEM fields and careers.” The study also found that these kids have an increased knowledge of STEM skills, such as computer and technological aptitude, communication, teamwork, and analytical thought. Most encouraging, STEM club students demonstrated a “higher likelihood of graduation and pursuing a STEM career.”

• It instills creativity. “It’s important to realize that creativity can co-exist with science and technology,” Chan says. STEM skills also lead to creative careers, not just lab coats. Art and architecture are great examples, according to Chan, of the two scopes co-existing. A background in STEM is also propelling graphic design into a leading industry that will continue to grow both technologically and artistically.

• It gives kids the edge they need to flourish in growing career fields. Workforce projections by the U.S. Department of Labor show that by 2018 nine of the 10 fastest growing occupations that require at least a bachelor’s degree will require significant scientific or mathematical training. In an economically rocky climate, students can look toward STEM careers with confidence and optimism.

As promised in our print edition, we have a more in-depth article by Dr. Newcombe, with specific ideas for preschooler STEM play. You can download the PDF in its entirety.