By Suzanne Reyes
In November 2019, the Department of Education invested $540 million to support STEM education. Why the big check to support science, technology, engineering, and mathematics? Our future depends on it.
A U.S. Department of Education report states, "If we want a nation where our future leaders, neighbors, and workers can understand and solve some of the complex challenges of today and tomorrow, and to meet the demands of the dynamic and evolving workforce, building students' skills, content knowledge, and fluency in STEM fields is essential."
"In today's constantly changing climate, our youth must be prepared with the fundamentals of STEM teaching such as problem-solving, making sense of important information, and being able to gather and examine evidence to make just decisions," explained Morgan Appel, Assistant Dean for Education and Community Outreach at UC San Diego Extension.
Not only does STEM provide a new way of thinking and learning to students, the earning potential of a STEM versus a non-STEM career is staggering. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, "The national average wage for all STEM occupations is $87,570. This is nearly double the average wage for non-STEM occupations ($45,700).
So, when do we start? Researchers would suggest as soon as possible. There are 700 neural connections that infants and toddlers develop every second that makes this the best time to introduce scientific inquiry to children. Research shows that early STEM exposure does more than develop STEM rationale. According to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, "Science instruction at an early age showed improved abilities in subjects outside of STEM, including literacy, language-learning, math, and executive functioning." Once in elementary school, continuing STEM exposure for students has shown to pique their interest in a future STEM-related occupation. Studies report that students are more likely to pursue STEM majors at universities and colleges if introduced to those topics in grade school.
While these disciplines have been around for centuries, STEM topics have historically been taught as separate entities. The combination of science, technology, engineering, and math (and now art, which accounts for the new acronym STEAM), makes integration of these disciplines easier for children to understand.
However, accessibility to STEM learning is not always easy. A STEM report by the U.S. Department of Education states, "We must also make sure that no matter where children live, they have access to quality learning environments. A child's zip code should not determine their STEM fluency."
The current gap can be bridged through ongoing teacher development. Elementary and secondary education in mathematics and science is the foundation for student entry into postsecondary STEM majors as well as a wide variety of STEM-related occupations. Therefore, elementary classroom teachers create a powerful environment for STEM implementation and learning.
How can teachers prepare themselves to teach this new wave of STEM learners? With support.
Many elementary teachers have reported that they feel underprepared and overwhelmed in terms of the knowledge and beliefs related to engineering. Yet, how instructors learn, interpret, and teach STEM will have obvious effects on their students. Educators must have access to professional development to understand what works in the STEM curriculum, and what does not.
Sally Ride Science at UC San Diego offers professional development opportunities for educators to grow their knowledge within STEM. The courses are offered online for ease of access to educators.
The STEM discipline is more than just books, studying, experiments, and reading but a different view of the world, Appel said. Early exposure to STEM can bring about a spark in the mind of a child that encourages them to continue this path through college and into the professional world.
Interested in STEAM education?
Extension offers a range of Pre-College Programs, including Futures, Sally Ride Science, Research Scholars, Academic Connections to youth from age 3-18.
Teachers can pursue Professional Development opportunities through Sally Ride Science, a non-profit organization run by UC San Diego, to inspire and promote STEM literacy.