In his annual State of the Union address Tuesday night, President Obama affirmed the importance of education in a strong and prosperous America. Two of his most talked-about proposals -- expanding access to community college and addressing the growing challenge of cyber security -- highlight the urgent need to strengthen science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) offerings in the U.S. education system.
While other barriers to access still exist, the president's proposal to offer two years of free community college tuition to eligible students could make a significant contribution to reducing the skills gap and preparing students for the in-demand jobs of the global economy. The U.S. Department of Commerce estimates that by 2018, our country will need approximately 1.2 million STEM-trained professionals to meet economic demands. However, we are not currently on track to hit this mark. Eliminating financial barriers can help the U.S. meet this need, but only if resources are directed to high-quality technical or associate's degree programs that meet workforce demands.
Many community colleges offer excellent degree programs in fields such as automotive technology, manufacturing, information technology and computer science, health care and engineering. Within two years, a student can earn a technical certification, associate's degree or a strong transcript of credits that will transfer to a four-year institution for further studies.
In order to prepare students to take advantage of more accessible post-secondary education, we must also ensure that all students in America's K-12 classrooms today have access to high-quality STEM education. The foundation gained through STEM education will give students the tools to think critically, solve problems, communicate and collaborate. These skills will help them persist in post-secondary education and succeed in their chosen careers.
In 2014, we saw myriad attacks on the data and information systems of U.S. corporations, individuals and even the U.S. government. In response, the president outlined a proposal to bolster our nation's cyber security and safeguard against identify theft. As our world relies more heavily on technology, the Internet and digital data, the need for computer scientists and technologists will grow exponentially. To prepare for this need, our education system must increase access to computer science education through better curricula and teacher professional development.
The large majority of students in grades K-12 do not have access to computer science education, or even the basic digital literacy to safely use the Internet. With many children having access to smartphones, tablets and laptops at an early age, it is critical that we teach them how to responsibly use technology and share information. And as they progress through their education, we must expose all students to the broad career opportunities in computer science. In 2013, a national survey of high school graduates' career interests underscored this importance. In the areas of computer and information specialties, only two percent of students expressed interest in pursuing a related degree.
But we cannot, of course, increase the number of computer science courses without qualified teachers. Several organizations are working to address this challenge, including Project Lead The Way. We are creating a K-12 computer science pathway, along with high-quality teacher professional development programs to give educators the knowledge and confidence to instruct computer science courses. At the state level, we encourage legislators to look at their teacher licensure requirements, and allow computer science professionals with the passion to teach the ability to do so. To protect America from cyber threats, we need a coordinated effort that includes education as a primary foundation.
As the president stated, to ensure a more prosperous future, we must continue to focus on education. At the K-12 level, we must equip students with the knowledge and skills they need to successfully navigate post-secondary education and their careers. A quality STEM education will set students on that path to success. At the post-secondary level, the president's community college proposal will eliminate one financial barrier, and as a result, increase students' access to the advanced learning they need. And at a national level, an emphasis on digital literacy and cyber security will ensure a more secure, more confident nation.
Dr. Vince Bertram is the president and CEO of Project Lead The Way and author of "One Nation Under-Taught: Solving America's Science, Technology, Engineering & Math Crisis."