Good STEM Education Needs to be Available to Everyone. Early.


The Commerce Department estimates that fewer than 40 percent of students entering a STEM field in college ultimately graduate with a STEM degree. This is a headline problem that impacts the long term success rate of American innovation. But college dropouts are not the only problem – for some students the issue is making it to the table at all.

Increasing American opportunity and innovation means encouraging STEM education and creating a more level educational playing field in order to produce more qualified young people entering the workforce. Looking at STEM education starting with college obscures the fact that technological awareness and education starts much earlier -- at home and at school. If students fall behind early, they’re likely to stay behind.

Unsurprisingly, socio-economic inequality is currently cutting the deck in educational opportunity. According to the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life report, low income students in poorer school districts are getting left behind. Eighty-four percent of Advanced Placement and National Writing Project teachers raised the issue of increasing disparities between low- and high-income students and school districts regarding access to technology.

Thirty-nine percent of AP and NWP teachers of low income students say their school is “behind the curve” on the use of digital tools in the classroom, compared to only 15 percent of teachers in wealthier districts. It’s clear that low income students might also be suffering from not having access to the internet and other technology in their homes -- only 18 percent of teachers in the study said their students have the necessary access to digital tools at home.

The kids that don’t get left behind might go on to study STEM subjects at college, and they might graduate (though over 60% do not), and then they might manage to secure one of the highest paying jobs that do much to push the economy forward.

Based on the latest research, students are not on the right path in great enough numbers to get to the desired result – and the diversion is happening at middle school.

When half the youth population is falling behind their peers, it’s bad news for the future of American innovation. When the half left behind is from the lower end of the socio-economic scale, it perpetuates the message that prosperity and success is only for those born into privilege and opportunity. To change the message, we need to change the reality.

We need to face up to one of the root problems of poor-performing students and a low STEM graduation rate – the effect of poverty on education – and endorse programs like the Discovery Research K-12 Mathematics and Science Partnerships (and celebrate the successes of approaching the issue early), as well as those that policies that seek to attract and retain students in STEM degree programs through scholarships and financial aid.

Education and access are key to opening opportunities for personal growth and national economic success. In addition to supporting college programs, as a community we need to support investment along the so-called education “pipeline” from kindergarten to bachelors and masters degrees, and beyond. Starting with college is too late.

Photo courtesy of Patrick Giblin.