For Bob Rivers, if there is a stairway to success in this economy and to business innovation in Indiana, it’s stepping up science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills, also known as STEM.
“Our businesses have sounded an alarm because they have to hire people from out of state” says River, Director of the Center for Science and Teacher Education at Purdue University Calumet.
“We need to create a strong enough pipeline of students and then connect them at the universities to industries from the state and the region so we can boost economic development. And get half of them to stay here. What a shot in the arm that would be.”
According the U. S. Department of Labor, only 5 percent of U.S. workers are employed in these fields, yet they are responsible for more than 50 percent of sustained economic expansion. STEM occupations have garnered 26 percent more earnings than non-STEM occupations.
Indiana needs to urgently address the challenge and raise the bar, Rivers says. STEM workers drive our nation’s innovation and competitiveness by generating new ideas, companies and industries, according to the Indiana Department of Workforce Development.
STEM job growth was three times that of non-STEM jobs in the past decade and is second only to health care as the fastest-growing occupational category. Key STEM fields in Indiana are advanced manufacturing, biotechnology, engineering and information technology.
“If we don’t start producing more students, we are stymieing economic development,” Rivers says. “And let’s face it, every job in Indiana has a connection to technology. We’re not advocating everybody is going to become a scientist, doctor or even get a master’s degree. Jobs are becoming more technical and require more basic mathematical and scientific understanding.”
Making science count
Indiana tests students in science but only holds schools accountable for meeting performance targets on ready and math tests, Rivers says.
In almost every state, children will get less time for science in elementary school than they did 15 years ago, according to 2012 data from the American Institutes for Research.
Rivers says its imperative the process include a careful assessment of student ability in science over the long haul and begin at the upper elementary level. Tests need to move beyond multiple choice.
“Math and English get the bulk of the time, and science is an afterthought at the end of the day,” he says. “They need to be held accountable in the right way — not memorizing a bunch of words and definitions.”
Debbie Snedden, curriculum director at the Hammond Academy of Science and Technology, says inquiry and concepts must be taught.
“We have to look at how kids are learning,” she says. “This is so much bigger than just the science. It’s about thinking and reasoning. We have inquiry based instruction where kids have to uncover it. The learning is definitely the responsibility of the kids.”
HAST has partnerships with local industries such as BP and ArcelorMittal. The school takes students on field trips, brings in live engineers and offers internships at PUC.
Igniting the spark
STEM jobs are plentiful and will increase in demand, but STEM degrees and certificates have not kept pace with demand, according to data from Washington D.C.-based Change the Equation, a nonprofit business-led initiative.
“We need to light the fire at the elementary school level because that’s where the pipeline starts,” Rivers says. “If you turn them off then they grudgingly go through science and then avoid it like the plague. You’re not going to get students at the college level if they’re not prepared adequately and don’t have the right kinds of attitudes.”
PUC has a submarine simulation program, funded by the U.S. Department of Navy in 1996, called “Exploration Earth: Mission Ocean” to engage students in STEM.
“Lighting a fire means getting students plugged into the excitement and intellectual stimulation and enjoyment they can get from doing a scientific activity,” Rivers says.
He advocates not just after-school programs but in-school programs because they have the potential to impact more students. He says he received a letter from a mother whose son was choosing to go to the naval military academy.
“That program lit a fire in him and allowed him to make choices as he want through middle, high school and college that sent him in that direction,” he says.
Women and Hispanics
The composition of the STEM education pipeline needs to include more women and underrepresented minorities, Rivers says.
Although women fill close to half of all jobs in the U.S., they hold less than 25 percent of STEM related jobs, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
Snedden says “The girls don’t even think about engineering classes but once they get into these projects they see what it’s all about."
Muhammad Anan and Besma Smida are assistant professors of electrical and computer engineering at PUC. Anan says he has seen more women entering the field of software engineering because working conditions are generally better. “It’s a challenge but it’s still not where we’d like it to be,” he says.
Besma Smida says the numbers remain far too low and that its time to drop old stereotypes and myths of science and technology as being dull and boring. A career in engineering occupations can be varied, exciting, glamorous, she says.
Rivers says girls frequently emerge as leaders during submarine simulations.
“In many cases, the girl is the captain in our teams. You see them working together with skills and concepts they have developed. You see the confidence in their faces and watch them giving orders. It is amazing to see.
“Lighting the fire early on helps build the pipeline so they are ready for the challenging and experiences at the high school and college level.”