A Day One game plan for STEM diversity

Our nation has seen many dark, chaotic days this past year. We have fallen behind the rest of the world and it is clear that the deprioritization of science is partially to blame. As we look towards Inauguration Day, we must be intentional in rebuilding our nation’s science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) capacity. President-elect Biden’s ambitious, policy focused approach to governing will tackle the COVID-19 pandemic, racial justice and climate change. Creating a resilient, robust and diverse STEM pipeline must be a priority. 

Labor shortages persist in the U.S. in a variety of STEM fields, which is not surprising given that we have been trailing other nations at all levels of STEM education for decades. Due to the pandemic, we are falling even further behind. A recent McKinsey report estimates that learning loss in math alone is 12 months for some of our most vulnerable students. 

Other worrisome statistics abound. The U.S. only awards 21 percent of its overall bachelor’s degrees in science (excluding social science) and engineering, straggling behind China (40 percent), Germany (35 percent) and South Korea (33 percent). Similarly, an extensive number of science and engineering students pursuing doctoral degrees in the U.S. are international students on temporary visas. Why aren’t more students born and raised in the U.S. enrolling in STEM doctoral programs?

I believe that a stronger K-12 STEM education system focused on experiential learning and research will guide American students on the path to STEM degrees and careers. If the U.S. is to keep pace and continue innovating, we must up our game in STEM education.

The COVID-19 pandemic could not put our need for STEM talent in starker relief. Researchers are racing to develop vaccines. Engineers are designing new personal protective equipment and ventilators. Scientists are collaborating to use pandemic data to inform public health policies. This will not be our last crisis. We must prepare by strengthening the STEM talent pipeline, which will in turn close the gap between demand and supply of STEM talent. Because of the time and training required to become a scientist or engineer, this effort must begin without delay.

In a paper published by the Day One Project, my colleague Rachel Alper and I call on the Biden administration in his first 60 days of office to establish and fund the Next Generation of STEM Talent Through K-12 Research Programming initiative. Our plan charges the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy with overseeing and strengthening federal support for teacher training and program development to engage students in STEM research and problem solving. A nonnegotiable feature of this initiative is eradicating barriers that make it challenging for women, people of color and children from low income families to enter STEM fields. It is essential that our STEM workforce draw on the talent of all Americans. We have seen how unconscious biases manifest in algorithms and in healthcare to the detriment of all Americans.

The initiative would provide $250 million over 10 years to support K-12 research programs through multiple federal agencies, the private sector and NGOs such as the Society for Science that would collaborate to scale and strengthen proven STEM programs.

In my work at the Society for Science, I have seen firsthand that when students start young and receive experiential learning opportunities, success in STEM lies in front of them. When students tinker, explore and do hands-on research, they become self motivated, enjoy the process of discovery and experience the fun of doing research. This is why K-12 research is at the heart of our proposal. When I see students nurtured through my organization’s outreach and equity programs and end up at our world class science research competitions, my heart swells, knowing there is a way forward. 

We call on the Biden administration to reinvigorate the STEM talent pool by providing a robust STEM research pipeline in the U.S. The COVID-19 pandemic has driven home the urgency of a strong and diverse STEM workforce.

The prosperity of our nation depends on it. 

Maya Ajmera is the president and CEO of Society for Science and the publisher of Science News

Tags biden administration Education Education policy Engineering education Mathematics education Science education Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics STEM pipeline Women in STEM fields
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