When an investor, entrepreneur, teacher, or student hears the word "technology" or "engineering" these days, he or she is increasingly likely to associate the term with an emerging economic power in Asia or a post-industrial European country, rather than the United States. Long regarded as the world's preeminent place to study and practice the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), the U.S. has recently been losing ground in these disciplines to other parts of the world.
President Obama has made a strong commitment to ensure that the nation's preeminence in these fields endures long into the future; but this goal will not be easy to attain. My colleagues and I at the National Math and Science Initiative (NMSI) are delighted that the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) is meeting this challenge head on. Since President Obama announced the formation of the council in the spring of 2009, it has provided policy advice to the administration when the in-depth understanding of innovation, science, and technology is critical. At the president's request PCAST has also done in-depth studies and made recommendations on priorities and policies that our country should adopt in STEM education.
Earlier this month, the council issued its latest education report, Engage to Excel: Producing One Million Additional College Graduates with Degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. The report cites the high dropout rate from science, math, and engineering majors in U.S. universities and warns that America "will need to increase the number of students who receive undergraduate STEM degrees by about 34 percent annually over current rates." To do that universities must do more to retain the interest of students who enter college intending to get STEM degrees and provide opportunities for other students to become acquainted with the excitement and rewards of STEM fields. These fields, moreover, will be instrumental in ensuring our nation's future prosperity.
In its commendable report, PCAST lays out the answers in three main recommendations: make the first two years of college STEM classes more enjoyable, including opportunities for hands-on research experiences; diversify the ways in which students can achieve a STEM degree; and provide all students the tools they need to excel in these fields. These types of common-sense, yet innovative, approaches to transforming STEM education must become a national priority.
The use of inquiry in teaching, experience with real research and discovery, practical applications of abstract ideas, and a focus on individual achievement can make a major difference in student engagement, success, and retention in science. NMSI is particularly dedicated to PCAST's third imperative, providing all students with what they need to plot their own course to success. Whether helping children of parents in the military or preparing high school students to succeed in AP classes, NMSI is striving to groom more young adults to excel at the highest levels of achievement. This vision is steadily coming to fruition. In fact, according to the College Board, The 8th Annual AP Report to the Nation shows that, in 2011, in all but four states, more public school graduates successfully participated in AP programs than ever before.
NMSI is proud to endorse the recommendations in PCAST's latest report, which, as the council affirms, will provide students with "the skills they need to fill 21st century American jobs and provide the United States with the workforce it needs to be innovative and competitive for decades to come."
At a time when education is more important than ever, NMSI applauds PCAST's efforts to add one million more STEM graduates to our nation's workforce. It very well could be the best investment our government makes in the future of our country.
Dr. Mary Ann Rankin is president and CEO of the National Math and Science Initiative.