For the last several years, concern has been brewing about America's underinvestment and underperformance in science, technology, engineering and mathematics--the fields collectively known as STEM. What is STEM, and why is it drawing so much attention? STEM can he described as an "initiative for securing America's leadership in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields and identifying promising strategies for strengthening the educational pipeline that leads to STEM careers."(1) The elements of STEM are integral parts of our nation's critical economic sectors, from health care to energy, infrastructure and national security.
STEM careers include not only those requiring a research-based advanced math or science degree, but a broad range of related occupations in areas as diverse as aquaculture, automotive technology, accounting and architecture. More careers than ever before require a deep understanding of STEM principles. Unfortunately, the supply of STEM talent is not increasing to meet the growing need. Two main factors are affecting the supply side of the STEM equation. First, the looming retirement of the baby boom generation will significantly affect the STEM labor force. The number of current scientists and engineers retiring will increase rapidly over the next decade. Second, too few-students are currently choosing to prepare for STEM careers. The United States is standing still or falling behind in terms of producing its home-grown STEM talent. At the same time, other nations, particularly population-rich ones like India and China, are rapidly increasing the number of STEM professionals that their secondary and postsecondary education systems produce. (2)
While some of the dearth of STEM professionals can be attributed to lack of interest, there is growing concern that students are not gaining the foundational skills necessary to be successful in STEM career areas even if they choose that path. Low student performance is evidenced on the U.S. National Assessment of Educational Progress. Math scores for 17-year-olds were significantly unchanged from 2004 to 2008, despite the fact that students are taking more and higher-level math courses in high school. (3) In fact, test results showed that 41 percent of those students did not even have an understanding of moderately complex math procedures and reasoning, such as finding averages and making decisions based on graphs.(4)
According to the 2006 Program for International Student Assessment, American students performed much worse in science and math than students from other industrialized countries.(5) In addition, scores in the United States were much more closely correlated to socioeconomic status than in other countries, and achievement gaps also exist among U.S. students based on race, ethnicity and gender.
CTE Provides a Solution
CTE has long been a leader in the integration of high-level academics and technology. For example, CTE courses in agriculture, nutrition and health care have always contained strong science components, in many places earning students core academic credits. During the last decade, however, literally thousands of new cutting-edge, STEM-intensive CTE programs have been launched or expanded in schools across the nation. As these programs move to larger-scale implementation, they have amazing potential to help many additional students prepare for and pursue careers in STEM areas. CTE programs and related initiatives provide key advantages in addressing the STEM challenge and securing America's leadership in innovation. CTE programs offer students a deeper understanding of STEM career pathways in order to facilitate student transitions into these areas, build interest in STEM and STEM-related careers by making math and science content more relevant and tangible to students through integration, and help grow the STEM workforce pipeline by encouraging more students from underrepresented populations to enter these career fields. …