STEM Fields: Learning Today, Leading Tomorrow | Commentary

While Americans hear mostly about gridlock and partisan fighting in Congress, the issues with strong bipartisan support often get overlooked.

Inspiring American students to pursue science and math education is a goal shared by Republicans and Democrats. The bipartisan STEM Education Act, passed by the House last month, strengthens science, technology, engineering and mathematics education efforts at federal science agencies. It also, for the first time, expands the definition of STEM to include computer science.

Computer science has become a crucial component of numerous industries, from banking to engineering to medicine. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, computing and mathematics are among the top 10 fastest-growing major occupational groups with a growth rate four times that of overall industry growth.

The National Math and Science Initiative found that during the next decade, STEM job creation will grow nearly twice as fast as non-STEM positions. But STEM education is about more than job growth and ensuring good-paying careers for many Americans. The STEM students of today have the potential to develop life-saving technologies and generate new industries.

We have to inspire today’s young adults to pursue these careers. For example, even with this industry surge and the high pay-scale for STEM graduates, very few women pursue STEM degrees. The Census Bureau reported that while women make up nearly half of the American workforce, only a quarter of them work in STEM fields.

American students rank 21st in science and 26th in math. This must change for the country to compete globally. Now is the time to ensure our teachers have the proper training to prepare our students so they can succeed in a technology-driven economy. Whether we are educating students for advanced degrees in STEM or ensuring that young adults have the scientific and mathematic literacy to thrive in a 21st century technology based economy, the foundation for both of these begins in our K-12 schools. Strong support for STEM education in K-12 education will help our children attain good-paying jobs in high-demand fields such as manufacturing, health and biomedical industries, energy and information technology.

The ability to educate and inspire is a quality that all teachers should possess. Good teaching requires an additional and special set of knowledge and skills. The STEM Education Act ensures the Robert Noyce Master Teacher Fellowship program is open to teachers working toward a master’s degree in STEM subjects. The program allows them to bolster their math and science skills in order to become effective teachers and encourages more teachers to pursue advanced degrees.

The legislation also directs the National Science Foundation to continue to award competitive grants for out-of-school STEM learning experiences for both students and teachers. Career professionals in STEM fields should have opportunities to mentor the next generation of scientists, engineers and mathematicians. There are numerous companies, foundations and nonprofit organizations doing their own part to successfully promote STEM education. Innovative public-private partnerships are a great way to leverage private sector expertise.

Students who develop an interest in STEM subjects at an early age are the ones who will stick with it. We must work together to establish and sustain a STEM workforce that is capable of developing the technologies of the future. This will not only benefit the U.S. economy, but also lead to a higher quality of life for all Americans. It is time to bring STEM education into the 21st century so that future American innovators can continue to create advanced technologies, ideas and products.

Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, chairs the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-Conn., is a member of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.

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