Despite billions in annual spending to promote science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education, the United States is not producing enough graduates to meet the needs of our companies or country. The problem isn’t lack of focus; it’s that we haven’t won the hearts of students.
Changing your story can change your trajectory, and it’s time to change America’s STEM story, and with it, our trajectory. We need all students believing that STEM is at the root of public service, personal freedom, creativity, and belonging, because that’s exactly what it is.
Unfortunately, there’s a national narrative that STEM is hard, dull, and without emotional meaning. One study indicated that nearly 90 percent of high-school graduates are not interested in a career or a college major involving science, technology, engineering, or math. This is due, in part, to the fact that it’s socially acceptable to be bad at math. A Change the Equation survey revealed that 53 percent of Americans aged 18 to 35 often admit that they can’t do math. It is not OK to say, “I’m not good at reading or talking,” but it is OK to say, “I’m not good at math.” And when parents (and others) say they weren’t good at math either—sometimes to make their struggling children feel better—they inadvertently give kids permission to quit. And kids do—in droves.
STEM can be tough to learn, just like anything else. But we need to tell students they can do it, and we need to hold them accountable. This is how it was in my home; STEM was like oxygen—it was everywhere. My mother was a seamstress and my father was a carpenter. Math had emotional, professional, and financial meaning. My parents taught me to believe that I could overcome any challenge, including physics, and “can’t” just wasn’t acceptable.
The responsibility for creating STEM relevancy rests with us adults, with parents and mentors. We must begin now to shift our language and help students learn that STEM isn’t about STEM; it’s about making a difference in the world. It’s about the ability to excel, even if you’re an artist or social worker, because the world has changed, and technology and math are at the heart of everything. We must tell young people that understanding STEM means they can create things that change the world. This is the language of a new generation, and we must learn to speak it.
We can start by immersing young people in hands-on programs that break down stereotypes about STEM careers and give visibility to role models. One well-known example is Girls Who Code, where girls can find like-minded friends and relevance for STEM learning. In Austin, Texas, another girls-focused organization, Girlstart, runs multiple STEM modules during a summer camp to unpack the diversity of STEM careers. Through its Eco Girl module, for example, girls meet environmental engineer practitioners, discover how they can generate energy from the earth, and workshop ways to proactively solve global problems. They build solar cars, design solar homes, and construct buildings with rooftop gardens.
It takes a family and social support network, not just great teachers, to learn STEM and stay with it long-term, just as it requires years of practice, discipline, support, and coaches to master a sport. One program that specifically targets parents is Start with STEM, a recent initiative launched by a group of passionate Intel engineers to help parents understand STEM and career possibilities. While exploring the root-cause analysis of declining interest in STEM, the team uncovered the importance of parental knowledge and involvement. One parent shared, “When you know better, you will do better. My impression of STEM jobs has totally changed.” The engineers hope to reach thousands of parents and encourage them to support their budding scientists, mathematicians, engineers, and technologists.
If we want more STEM graduates, then we must promote ideas, language, people, and programs that demonstrate relevance and foster a sense of belonging. At Intel, we’ve found that we can offer new graduates great opportunities, but they will still ask, “Will I enjoy doing this and how does this matter in life?” People want to work on things that matter and connect the dots between their work and making a difference. We know that if a subject interests a student, education happens. It’s our job to make it interesting.
We’ve got to make the emotional connection to STEM, or we will fail.