How to Solve the STEM Gap

To improve STEM education among citizens, in 2013 the Obama administration outlined a five-year strategic plan urging $700 million in public-private partnerships. This is a paltry amount in a country that spends $810 billion a year on education. But even if the government doubled STEM funding, would the money double the number of Americans who study it? Would it double America’s power, innovation, and creation? Doubtful.

Granted, in many cases the problem may actually be insufficient funding. STEM educational opportunities differ significantly in various socioeconomic and geographic regions. Only 81% of Asian-American high school students attend a school that offers the full range of math and science courses as defined by the U.S. Department of Education (Algebra 1, Algebra II, geometry, calculus, biology, chemistry, and physics). Only 71% of white American high school students have access to the full range of these courses, and the access to math and science courses is much worse for Hispanic, black, American Indian, and Native Alaskan students. Computer science is taught in just one of four high schools nationwide.

But while additional funding would help push more young Americans into STEM, especially where they lack the opportunity for study, the most efficient kind of injection for the federal government to make isn’t money. It’s something else. The ideal strategy wouldn’t push students into STEM. It would create a pull, a demand among individuals and communities. If there’s a will, any kid destined to be a scientist or engineer will find a way. Any community that takes STEM seriously will find a way. After all, other nations are providing STEM education at a fraction of what we spend per student. The countries that compete with us the most successfully in science and technology—and the comers who might overtake us in the future—are those nations that place the highest priorities on STEM. Not just on the government level, but culturally. Science and technology aren’t just valued in these countries. They think STEM is actually cool.

There was a time when that was true in this country as well. Strangely enough, it started with a competitor, Russia, and its small, beeping satellite.