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STEMing the skills gap

Posted by Chad O'Connor  April 3, 2013 11:00 AM

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[Editor's Note: Technical difficulties meant there was no Ellen Keiley segment on RadioBDC earlier this week, but be sure to check it out next Tuesday morning!]

Updated version April 8th, 2013

Let this article serve as a call to arms or, more appropriately, to brains. It’s been more than 238 years since Paul Revere’s midnight and we face a foe as unrelenting and merciless as the British were during the Revolutionary War: declining math and science. This year’s Harvard University-sponsored report, “Achievement Growth: International and U.S. State Trends in Student Performance,” showed that American students ranked 25th in math, 17th in science and 14th in reading. These findings are alarming because they point to a future disadvantage the U.S. will face in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers if this trend persists.

The importance of kindling our children’s interests in STEM subjects cannot be understated. The “Three R’s” – reading, writing and arithmetic – that form the foundation of today’s educational system need to be replaced by the math, science and technology skills necessary to succeed in the modern workplace. We are graduating hundreds of thousands of students from high school and colleges each year for jobs that are in short supply or no longer exist. This gap between the skills we are teaching children in schools and the knowledge employers are seeking is contributing to today’s high unemployment rates.

However, Change the Equation, a CEO-led non-profit initiative focused on getting businesses more involved in STEM education, found that the opposite is true for STEM careers. According to their research, only 4 percent of workers with STEM careers are unemployed. This statistic showcases the value of STEM education when it comes to employability. The U.S. needs a highly skilled workforce to maintain its global leadership position in the technology industry and the first step in that journey is to emphasize the value of STEM skills to today’s youth.

There are a wide variety of options available for companies to support STEM education locally. DIGITS is an organization designed to address the shortage of workers in the Massachusetts STEM workforce. DIGITS was created by a coalition of Massachusetts science and technology associations representing over 1500 companies and 300,000 people who work in information technology, engineering, life sciences, manufacturing and clean energy. The organization pairs STEM professionals with sixth-grade classes throughout the state to educate students about interesting STEM careers.

The Ten80 Student Racing Challenge: NASCAR STEM initiative is a project-based curriculum, support network and optional competition league created by educators, engineers and industry partners over the last decade. Its mission is to help youth, especially underrepresented minorities and women, develop confidence and interest in STEM areas. Young men and women, supported by a community of mentors and educators, collaborate and compete in business simulation challenges that would involve business executives, design teams and engineers.

Many organizations are focused on instilling passion for STEM within students – but it is also important that educators share this belief. This is why homegrown programs that focus on teachers are so effective. We here at Dassault Systèmes launched our TaDS (Teachers at Dassault Systèmes) program last year to allow teachers to spend their summer within a STEM business organization. TaDS participants worked with our employees to build a curriculum that teaches the important business and technology skills that Dassault Systèmes uses everyday to help our clients thrive.

Finally, Massachusetts employers can exert influence on lawmakers to promote STEM within the education system. The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) are currently being developed by state and federal governments and it is important that the business community’s voice be heard. NGSS in its current state is particularly troubling as computer science is not explicitly included among them. The message to the business community is that the K-12 education system does not intend to play a significant role in developing the computer science workforce of the future. This is why we urge New England companies to educate their local state representatives and the governor on the importance of computer science skills to the Commonwealth’s future workforce.

In the end, it is imperative that the government, school districts and corporations within Massachusetts work together to solve the STEM crisis. Research from the U.S. Joint Economic Committee shows only 15 percent of the entire U.S. college graduating class of 2008 received their Bachelor’s degrees in STEM-related majors. This is a stunningly low number when compared to other technologically advanced countries like South Korea (33 percent), Germany (29 percent) and France (27 percent). The core STEM principles of perseverance, intellectual curiosity and problem-solving must be reinforced in classrooms throughout the nation to inspire the next generation of business leaders. This is not an insurmountable challenge, but we must work together to improve our leadership position in STEM training. DIGITS, Ten80 or corporate STEM initiatives will help a new generation of American workers become more attractive to potential employers in an ever-increasing global work environment.

Al Bunshaft is a Senior Vice President at Dassault Systèmes, a board member of the Mass High Technology Council and co-chairperson of the Talent Development Committee.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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