This month Marylanders learned that Education Week had named our state's schools the best in the nation for the fifth year in a row. Credit goes to our students, educators, parents and policy makers for this exciting recognition.
But as CEO of a nonprofit dedicated to science education, I would caution against excess celebration. A closer look at recent test scores reveals that we must improve how we educate our students in science, a discipline that is vital to success in the 21st century economy.
Only 32 percent of Maryland eighth graders are deemed proficient in science, according to the National Assessment for Educational Progress. That means 28 other states do a better job preparing their students in science than Maryland. Further, only 11 percent of African-American eighth graders and 18 percent of Hispanic eighth graders in Maryland are deemed proficient in science.
We clearly have room for improvement — and our state's future prosperity may depend on it. The industries that will power Maryland's future economy require a workforce skilled in science. If our students lose interest in biology, chemistry, physics and computer science, Maryland will fall behind other states and countries in the race to attract and retain technology-based jobs.
We are already seeing the effects of a workforce shortage in science, technology, engineering, and math (known as the "STEM" disciplines). Gov. Martin O'Malley's STEM Task Force reports that we have about 6,000 STEM job openings every year, yet we only produce about 4,000 STEM graduates. That is one of the largest STEM workforce deficits among our competitor states.
These jobs aren't just vital to the nation's future — they are also rewarding. The typical life sciences professional in Maryland earns $91,100, 76 percent higher than the state's average.
To truly own the title "America's Best Schools," we must pursue five big goals in science education.
•Increase business partnerships: With one of the nation's highest concentrations of technology firms, Maryland's corporate community has a big stake in how we teach the next generation of workers. Life sciences, defense, aerospace and IT companies should be incentivized to partner with high schools on mentorships, internships and laboratory visits to spark student curiosity in science careers.
•Tap into federal labs: Maryland is home to world-class federal research labs, from the National Institutes of Health to NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. A statewide strategy to share the knowledge and career perspectives of these federal scientists should be a priority for our K-12 school system. In Harford County, for instance, scientists at Aberdeen Proving Ground work with local high school students on science experiments and offer a glimpse into the possibilities of a life in science.
•Cultivate minority students: We must open the door to science careers for those underrepresented in the STEM workforce: women, African-Americans and Hispanics. The University of Maryland-Baltimore County has set an excellent standard with its Meyerhoff Scholarship program, but our efforts shouldn't be confined to college. We must also start early by engaging students at the K-12 level during which students form lasting impressions about science as a field of study.
•Recruit and train teachers: Maryland faces a shortage of qualified science teachers, making it harder to show students the power of scientific discovery. In 2009, there were roughly four STEM teacher openings in Maryland for every new STEM teacher trained in Maryland. To boost our science teacher workforce, we must continue expanding access to professional development programs and make STEM teaching positions just as competitive as others. The state's plan to triple the number of STEM teachers produced in state by 2015 is a strong start.
•Finally, play games: You read that right. Research shows that game-based learning environments hold great potential in the classroom. Imagine an online learning world in which students explore concepts from heredity to DNA structure by guiding simulated characters through tasks that are designed to help students solve real-world problems. Game-based learning of the type our foundation is developing can merge the captivating technology students love with core curricula needed to raise science literacy.
The challenges ahead are clear, but Maryland's private and public sector leaders are more than up to the task. Now is the time to pursue these five big goals so that we truly own the title, "America's Best Schools."
Brian Gaines is CEO of MdBio Foundation, a 501(c)3 dedicated to providing bioscience awareness, education, and workforce development in Maryland and beyond. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.