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The Business Role in STEM Education

The month of April saw  at least two big announcements from the business community regarding the condition of math and science education in America. First, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce released “The Case for Being Bold: A New Agenda for Business in Improving STEM Education,” calling for the nation’s business sector to challenge the status quo of K-12 math and science education by (among other things) promoting curriculum redesign, carving new pathways to teaching, and leveraging technology.

Just one week later, Change the Equation, a CEO-led nonprofit focused on improving science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education and innovation, released its highly anticipated “Vital Signs” report — a compilation of key education statistics on math and science learning across all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The report is meant to set the foundation for deeper work on identifying and addressing the nation’s STEM education challenges.

Business leaders are right to expect more from our education system — as both employers of graduates and investors within states and communities across the country.

And while a focus on K-12 math and science education is certainly appropriate given the paramount role of academic preparation for success in STEM fields at the postsecondary level, business leaders would be wise to further the STEM education argument and demand more of higher education as well.

According to data out of the Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce, America will require roughly 22 million new workers with college degrees by the year 2018. A promising statement for national economic betterment, but also troubling as the same report indicates a projected shortfall of “at least 3 million postsecondary degrees.”

This demand for college educated workers combined with the fact that the STEM fields are the fastest growing segment of our economy requires a business community equally engaged in higher education reform as they are in K-12. And such reform must hold at its center the education of those populations growing in size, yet not entering the STEM pipeline in commensurate numbers.

If higher education is going to produce the college-educated STEM workers our economy needs, then we must see more students–especially those from underrepresented backgrounds–not only gain access to college, but complete degrees and credentials.

Yet, it remains true that women and minority populations are lost at every transition point of the STEM education continuum, including when they reach higher education and between college and the STEM workforce. Low-income students, in particular, are much less likely to finish college and women of all backgrounds face deep-seeded, systemic barriers in one of STEM’s fastest growing fields: Computer science.

So what steps can the business community take in moving the needle on undergraduate STEM education?  First, they must press colleges to make STEM curriculum more relevant and teaching practices more accessible to an increasingly diverse student body.

One of the largest contributors to attrition in STEM, as evidenced in the social science research literature, is a lack of real-world relevance as perceived by students of all backgrounds in all sorts of STEM majors. Yet, many reading this blog know full well that the STEM fields are incredibly relevant to students’ lives – in computing, health care, and environmental sustainability (to name a few).

Business leaders should seek out and align themselves with STEM faculty so that the curriculum meets the needs of our 21st century STEM industries – especially at the community college level where the educational mission is tied to local economic development and individual economic and social mobility. Professional science master’s programs (PSMs) are an emergent example of such alignment.

Businesses also need to invest resources and can do so and greatly benefit by expanding well-modeled internship, co-op, and research-focused apprenticeship programs for undergraduate students, including freshmen and sophomores.

Also important – the desire to “weed” students out of STEM must be replaced by a professoriate that meets students where they are and embraces the opportunity to bring more young minds into their field. This is where business can push for alignment between K-12 and higher education for transparent math and science standards.

As business leaders think about how to engage higher education, they can look to national associations like Business Higher Education Forum, nonprofit organizations like National Action Counsel for Minorities, federal initiatives like Skills for America’s Future, and statewide networks like the Ohio STEM Learning Network, Florida Council of 100, and STEM initiatives operating out of the National Governor’s Association.

It often takes external pressure to incent change within our society’s most rigid social structures. And the business community is not alone — the civil rights, labor and faith-based communities also have historically leveraged their voice in the name of economic and social change.

Yet business is well poised to take serious first steps in incenting change in STEM higher education — as both the beneficiaries of an educated populace and as the sector with the most financial leverage to shape regional economies.

– Dr. Lorelle L. Espinosa is the director of policy and strategic initiatives at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, a Washington, D.C.-based independent, nonprofit organization that is dedicated to increasing access and success in postsecondary education around the world.

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