STEM education: Not just for the next Neil Armstrong

STEM education: Not just for the next Neil Armstrong
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"I think I knew as a little girl that I was addicted to the stars and the universe and trying to understand it.”

“I’ve been lucky to have a number of mentors. … For me some of the most exciting [lectures] were on neutron stars, these spinning pulsars.”

“High school teachers were really important. Also my parents — my father always challenged me [with] all kinds of math quizzes.”

This is what some of the top astrophysicists in the world told the Committee on Science, Space and Technology when I asked how they began their journey and were inspired to become scientists.

The common thread among all of them? Early, inspiring experiences followed up by relevant school subjects and caring mentors and educators that sparked their interest and gave them a vision of something bigger out there to explore.

STEM education — those key subjects of science, technology, engineering and math — was central to their journeys.

Yet science and math education isn’t just about building the foundation for a career in research medicine, architecture, space exploration or startup technologies.

It’s about learning basic problem-solving.

It’s about learning to fail and trying again with even more determination the next time. It’s about learning resilience — good old-fashioned picking yourself up, brushing yourself off and trying again. 

It’s about honing individual skills while working toward a solution.

It’s about building soft skills like confidence and teamwork while collaborating in a group on a project.

My son has shared with me his aspiration to become an astronaut — and I hope he does. Yet American jobs in every field in the future require these skills, and employees will need them to succeed and enjoy what our society has to offer.

And we need ambassadors and cheerleaders at all levels to help promote the benefits of this type of education to our schools and communities.

That’s why this fall I have launched my STEM Scholars program for energetic students in my congressional district in Illinois.

The inaugural class of 19 STEM ambassadors will represent and promote the possibilities created by science, technology, engineering and math.

My hope is that these students will form the team that cures cancer, splits the next subatomic particle at Fermilab National Laboratory in Batavia, builds the next Hoover Dam or a better robot.

But more than that, I want these students to demonstrate to their classmates, teachers, parents, administrators and the community at large that STEM education isn’t just for the next Neil Armstrong. It should be central to the learning experience.

Instead of cutting out school time at the expense of liberal arts — English, history, government, music and more — we should cross-pollinate each to the other. Without the liberal arts, STEM education will not be able to graduate a new generation that is equipped for the challenges ahead. As George Washington said in his first annual address to Congress, “there is nothing which can better deserve your patronage than the promotion of science and literature. Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of public happiness.”

Technological advances today will help ensure happiness and quality of life by improving our healthcare, economic opportunities and everyday lives.

We are rapidly heading in the direction of becoming an innovation economy whereby all citizens of the future must possess basic knowledge of technology. They also need to understand life’s big picture to see how technological improvement could improve overall society. From nurses and grocery store checkers to fashion designers and farmers, technology is central to core job skills in the future.

As we work toward that future, it is our responsibility to spark our children’s interest in the subjects and fields that will dramatically improve our world. 

Hultgren is co-chairman of the STEM Education Caucus and a member of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.