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Why The National STEM Education Fund Is So Important

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Editor's Note: This post is part of HuffPost's Girls In STEM Mentorship Program. Join the conversation here or on Twitter (#hpSTEM) as we discuss issues affecting women in science, technology, engineering and math.

Occupations in STEM fields are the second-fastest growing in the nation, just behind health care, according to a Georgetown University study. And while the nation is expected to have more than 8.6 million STEM-related jobs available in 2018, as many as three million of those jobs might be unfilled, warns the National Math and Science Initiative.

At Spelman College, they call their robotics team the Spelbots. And though the team is relatively new to the college (the team was founded in 2004), they also call the team champions. The all women, all African American team first competed in the RoboCup competition in 2005. And in 2009, they made history as co-champions of the event. The success of Spelman's Spelbots point to an important piece of the puzzle: attracting more women and minorities to study, complete degrees and seek jobs in STEM fields.

Addressing the disparities in STEM areas will be crucial to filling a gap that could be as wide as three million workers. According to the National Center for Women & Information Technology, just 18 percent of undergraduate computing and information science degrees are awarded to women. And according to US News, Latino, African-Americans and American Indians between 18 and 24 represent 34 percent of the total U.S. population but earn only 12% of all undergraduate degrees in engineering.

Here is an alarm that rings loudly. Nationally, enrollment in the Advanced Placement test for music theory grew by 362 percent from 1997 to 2009, according to an opinion piece from Tom Luce, Chairman of the National Math and Science Initiative. Over the same time period, enrollment in the AP computer science AB test grew by just 12 percent.

One reason for optimism in this area involves legislation currently moving through Congress. Included in the bi-partisan Senate immigration reform bill is a national STEM education fund intended to increase the training of students in STEM fields and produce more college graduates in those fields. An amendment to the bill, proposed by Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Chris Coons (D-DE) and adopted unanimously by the Senate Judiciary Committee makes this fund even more robust as it provides states with additional money to strengthen their STEM education that prepare students for high-skill jobs.

As the immigration reform process continues, the STEM education fund has support in the House, specifically under Rep. Darrell Issa's (R-CA) high-skilled immigration bill, known as the SKILLS Act (Supplying Knowledge Based Immigrants and Lifting Levels of STEM Visas Act).

The fund is created by a new fee on employers in the U.S. who want to hire foreign workers to help fill their vacant high-skilled jobs. There's more negotiation to be done in the wide-ranging immigration reform bill. However, the sponsors of the STEM education fund are advancing an idea that has widespread support and could do much to improve education and access to STEM fields in every state and every community.

Our national response should be a sharper focus on and investment in STEM education to ensure we have the future innovators and entrepreneurs America will need to match its global competitors. There's no doubt we have the students capable of achieving the heights of Spelman's students. Our challenge is increasing opportunities for more students, especially women and minorities, to study STEM fields. A national STEM fund would be a sound foundation for every state.

From the look of things, we have our work cut out for us. The Spelbots are producing more than an inspiring story; they are also producing tomorrow's leaders. And if the trend of the growing jobs in science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM) and computer science jobs are any indication, the nation will need a lot more college graduates with the skills of the Spelbots' team members.

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