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How Technology Can Help Close the Skills Gap in STEM Education

03/10/2015 06:53 pm ET | Updated May 09, 2015

A new report from the Education Testing Services (ETS) group highlights a relatively silent but highly urgent problem in America: the skills gap in STEM (science, technology, education, and math) education. What we mean by "skills gap" is the mismatch between the kinds of skills employers say they need compared to the skills our students possess. Right now, our students, especially millennials, are losing ground to the rest of the world. ETS' report found that in numeracy (math) skills, the United States was tied for last among 22 developing countries. In the field of problem solving and technology rich environments (PS-TRE), U.S. millennials also ranked last. Both numeracy and PS-TRE skills are foundational to success in the STEM fields. In the age of rapid digital innovation, companies have huge demand for graduates with STEM skills. Yet institutions of American education are failing to produce the kind of graduates employers say they need. Maintaining America's global economic competitiveness in the 21st century largely depends on equipping our students with the kinds of STEM skills employers need.

So what is the best way to accomplish that? Many people have the perception that STEM subjects are simply too hard for them, and part of the solution undoubtedly lies in convincing discouraged young learners that they do have the ability to learn math, it may just take a lot of hard work. But another technique for filling the STEM skills gap is utilizing the power of technology to identify and solve problems. Here's a few ways we can use technology to fill the skills gap:

Collect and Utilize Data: A 2014 report by J.P. Morgan Chase on the state of New York City's need for skilled workers said that "the city needs a comprehensive data system that connects education data with workforce information." Database platforms used by both schools and employers can match students' talents to employers needs. Imagine if more students had a one-stop portal for accessing salary data in STEM fields (spoiler: they are high). The proliferation of such knowledge would undoubtedly encourage more kids to pursue STEM subjects. Imagine a massive educational system like New York Public Schools (and the CUNY community college system) aligning its curriculum toward the needs of the hundreds of major companies headquartered in New York. Its a win-win.

Encourage Technology in Personalized Learning Experiences: Many millennials, and certainly those younger than them, have never known a world not dominated by the digital and Internet revolution. The stereotype of millennials glued to their smartphones is hardly an exaggeration. Therefore, consumption of educational content should shift more toward how millennial brains like to process it: in short chunks, and online. Ron Radin, senior technologist at the Center for Learning Leadership, has observed, "People are squeezing learning into their ever-shrinking downtime. Online lectures aren't new, but MOOCs take that hour or two of lecture content each week and offer it in eight- or 10-minute chunks you can watch on your computer between meetings or on your smart phone while waiting in line." Radin is right. Online learning needs to go beyond full courses on the internet, and entrepreneurs need to find creative new ways to package content onto mobile platforms.

Retool the American School: A bill has already passed the House in the state of Arkansas and is working its way through the state Senate which would require computer science classes in every high school in Arkansas. Its a good step, but we have far to go: last year, the entire nation of England mandated that students 5-16 in public schools must take computer coding classes. The United States boosted its STEM focus once before, in the 1950s, when our leaders felt it necessary to stay ahead of the Soviet Union in the Space Race. We can do it again. Its important to get kids introduced to STEM subjects early if we want them to be successful long-term. Let's push STEM at a time in their life when their brains are most malleable to learning it.

This week, hundreds of teachers, administrators, entrepreneurs, and philanthropists from across the education spectrum will descend on Austin, TX, for the South by Southwest Edu conference. Each year, a big theme of the conference is on the application of technology to education, a process that is an art more than exact science. As they consider new ideas, I hope they will look closely at the host city to see just what STEM education can do. In the last few years, Facebook, Google, Samsung and Apple have moved in, and the town is hot for startups as well. As tech workers have moved in, good salaries with them, Austin has become the fastest growing big city in America. This means more tax revenues for schools and parks, more redevelopment, a higher quality of residents' lives, and a thriving business climate. By embracing the power of technology in teaching STEM subjects, we can make the rest of America look like Austin too.