The Future of STEM Education May Be at Risk

Renowned physicist Dr. James Gates spoke to Arkansas students about the importance of STEM education in America.

STEM education
A leading physicist ignites the imagination of students in Arkansas interested in STEM careers. (Photo: Maria Pavlova)
Suzi Parker is a journalist whose work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

It’s not every day that high school students get the chance to meet a renowned physicist.

But Arkansas high school students spent Tuesday listening to Dr. James Gates, a noted African-American theoretical physicist, talk about his career and the importance of a STEM education.

“There are half a million jobs that can’t find Americans to hire because they don’t have the skills level,” he told the packed auditorium at Philander Smith College in Little Rock. “These are the jobs you most want to have in the future.”

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Who could fill those? More students who focus on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) classes in high school and college.

Gates is a professor of physics at the University of Maryland in College Park but also serves on President Barack Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. In that capacity, he advises Obama on myriad topics, including the increasing need for STEM education in the United States.

In 2010, Obama commissioned a study about the country’s STEM education program. He then launched Change the Equation, a CEO-led effort to dramatically improve STEM education. In his lecture, Gates stressed, as Obama has on the campaign trail, the severity of the United States falling behind China and India and its economic impact.

“America is supposed to be number one,” Gates said. “How many Americans go around shouting we’re number 17? This is the first time in 100 years that the youngest generation of workers is less educated. The last 20 years we’ve been going backwards with education.”

Programs like the White House Science Fair, which Obama inaugurated two years ago, help students stay interested in STEM projects. But it’s not just students who need teaching. Teachers also need to reboot their curriculum, Gates said. He said it is understandable how students become bored in class.

Earlier this year, Obama announced several initiatives for STEM teachers, including an $80 million proposal for a new federal competition to support “effective STEM teacher preparation programs.” Obama also wants to create a $60 million fund to improve mathematics education jointly administered by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Science Foundation.

Eight years ago, the Arkansas Mentoring and Networking Association saw the critical needs to target underrepresented minority and disadvantaged high school and college students with STEM interests.

They created an annual lunch allowing students to meet role models like Gates, an expert in supersymmetry. In turn, the association wanted the students to realize that regardless of their socio-economic backgrounds, they can accomplish big dreams.

Gates told the students that he decided to become a scientist when he was eight years old one night while stargazing. He never wavered from that and focused on getting good grades.

“I was in school for 25 years,” he said, adding up all the years it took him to obtain his many degrees. “I was the first person in my family to go to college.”

Regardless of how important STEM education is for the country’s future, the programs are currently threatened. Last summer, the Congressional debt limit deal was reached. If Congress doesn’t take further action—and that seems unlikely—mandatory reductions in federal discretionary spending levels will take effect in January. Education and STEM-related programs are subject to an approximately 9 percent across-the-board reduction. 

With the United States already drastically declining in science, technology, engineering and math, the outlook isn’t good. Gates didn’t shy away from telling the students this.

“I worry about what will happen to my country,” he said. “Investment in education is when we as a country always got richer.”

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