On the Westside of Los Angeles, there’s a school where eighth-graders code and build websites, develop entrepreneurial ventures and use gaming software to design solutions for saving local endangered species. At the Incubator School, teachers leverage technology to individually tailor student learning and track progress toward challenging academic standards. And students regularly participate in a design laboratory in which they study sciences and complete projects based on their personal interests and passions.
High-quality instruction in science, technology, engineering and math — subjects collectively known as STEM — can provide students with a lens to approach and view the world. When students — like those at the Incubator School — engage in hands-on STEM learning, they aren’t just gaining subject matter knowledge. They’re developing a mind-set that affirms they can use inquiry and their own logic to reach new conclusions and tackle tough problems.
If we want our children to grow into the scientists, researchers, educators and entrepreneurs who will address our most pressing challenges, and if we want our nation to remain a global leader in innovation, we must ensure that all students have access to deep learning in STEM subjects and are taught by talented teachers knowledgeable in these fields.
Yet, across the country, there are disparities in students’ access to the full range of math and science courses, including such subjects as algebra, geometry, biology and physics. Nationwide, while 71% of white high school students have access to the complete range of these courses — often required for college admittance — only two-thirds of Latino students and a little more than half of black students do.
This situation is compounded by shortages of qualified math and science teachers, which disproportionately affect schools serving low-income and minority students. In California, teacher shortages in math, science and computer education have persisted for more than a decade. This school year, California districts will need to fill more than 21,000 teaching positions, many in hard-to-staff STEM subjects.
All of this comes at a time when the United States must ramp up to keep up with international competitors — ranking 29th in math and 22nd in science among industrialized nations.
Despite these challenges, I’m optimistic about the future of STEM teaching and learning, in California and throughout the country.
The Galt Joint Union Elementary School District in Sacramento County represents one encouraging example. Through a federal Race to the Top district grant, Galt Joint Union is increasing access to STEM with after-school clubs that offer virtual courses in subjects such as mechanical engineering. At River Oaks Elementary School, it’s not uncommon to see children working together to design and program robots. These efforts have led to increased student engagement in STEM, and have prepared Galt Joint Union to be one of eight school districts in California working toward early implementation of the Next Generation Science Standards.
To inspire and prepare more students to excel in STEM and build a strong pipeline of teachers in these disciplines, we need new ways of approaching STEM education, and our efforts must involve everyone: States, districts, schools, tech developers, teacher prep programs and our best scientists, mathematicians and engineers all have roles to play.
At the federal level, President Obama’s Educate to Innovate campaign has resulted in more than $1 billion in financial and in-kind support for STEM programs from corporations, philanthropists, colleges and a host of stakeholders. And more than 230 organizations have come together through 100Kin10, answering the president’s call to recruit and develop 100,000 excellent STEM teachers over the next decade.
Additionally, four of the nation’s largest youth development organizations — Boys and Girls Clubs of America, Girls Inc., YMCA and the National 4-H Council — are establishing a partnership to ignite the interest of traditionally underrepresented groups in STEM. This partnership will provide low-income and minority students and young girls with access to mobile STEM labs, science expos and STEM-themed summer camps.
It’s also promising that online hubs, like the Connectory, are helping teachers and parents find science and tech-related programs and activities for children in their communities.
We need even more initiatives like these to move students, teachers, and our nation from the middle to the top of the pack in science and math. This work must start early; it’s critical to inspire children, starting in preschool, to be lifelong learners in STEM.
And we need more role models like Isis Wenger, an engineer at a San-Francisco-based tech company who, through her #ILookLikeAnEngineer campaign, shatters notions of who can succeed in STEM industries.
With the start of this new school year, I’m confident that working together and across sectors, we can commit to connecting all students to strong STEM learning and great teachers that not only push our young people to explore and understand the world but also build the capacity to change it for the better.
Arne Duncan is the U.S. Secretary of Education.