Now that our yeshivot and day schools are back in session, it might be a good opportunity to take a look at the current K-12 school curriculum. I recently wrote a piece entitled, “Tiding the STEM.” I was also interviewed in the Baltimore Jewish Times on the topic. As parents and educators prepare for the upcoming school year, it might be an opportunity for renewed focus on STEM (Science, Engineering, Technology, and Math). In my previous essay, I tried to point out the positive outcomes associated with a STEM education as they relate to employment goals. At this time, I’d like to speak to curriculum review earlier on in the game.
One point which I have made is that young people today, especially school age children, love to use technology. They like to use smart phones, tablets and PC’s. They are adept at learning new platforms and how to operate gadgets of various sorts, often to the amazement of older generations. Some of the technology use is serious, some social, and some frankly frivolous. Regardless, they are comfortable using technology as end-users. But few have any interest in building or coding the technology. The result is that many jobs which require technological skills in this country (including here in the Baltimore-Washington area) go unfilled. As a result, we have seen a surge of outsourcing functions, such as Tech Support/Help Desk, go overseas (in case you didn’t pick that up last time your PC froze).
I think there are a few factors which have fed this phenomenon among young people. First is if young people (i.e., their parents) can afford to purchase a device that is more or less good-to-go, then why sweat having to write the code? Another factor probably relates to the prevalent teaching strategies being used to present STEM material. By this, I mean no disrespect to teachers per se, only that perhaps new methodologies and platforms must be developed and used in the teaching of STEM subjects. How old are the textbooks being used? (Perhaps because they are not e-books, they are by definition already obsolete.)
Young people have to be inspired and excited about STEM early on. While not every child has the acumen for all STEM fields, we need to do a better job in showing that these subjects are not just for smart people or geeks. This might mean having recent college graduates (non-teachers) making presentations in middle and high school classes about STEM. I am certainly not a master classroom pedagogue, but I will say that it is critical to combine the best, brightest, and most passionate teachers with information delivery systems which will be effective for emerging age cohorts.
It is no secret that America is not as competitive as other countries in STEM. Yet working in STEM and associated fields sometimes can often be accomplished without a college degree. This has been the emphasis with Maryland Skills2Compete initiative (a perusal of the website bears that out.)
In terms of available job opportunities in this area, technology is certainly the engine which is driving everything right now. Jobs are changing as a result of the technology and many new jobs which are being created are technical in nature. Obviously, there is overlap among the facets of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. There are many jobs out there that are hybrids of two or more of these facets. My Baltimore-Washington area is replete with government/military installations as well as contractors supporting those organizations. And they are hiring and paying. Some jobs are labeled as “hard-to-recruit” as a result of lack of available supply of skill set. For other jobs, where there might be a supply within the skill set, there are Security Clearance requirements. I have been advising young people that a combination of a STEM background and a Clearance (the earlier in one’s career obtained, the better) is indeed a ticket to future employment stability.
My last point is a strategic one. My colleague and Board Chair of the Governor’s Workforce Investment Board, Martin Knott, has always emphasized the need for a greater alignment between our educational systems and the needs of industry. In a very real sense, industry must have a seat at the table of high school curriculum planning meetings. One could argue that industry should have a seat at middle school planning meetings as well. At the college level, there need to be more American-born students in STEM majors (even non-STEM majors should have some proficiency).
In whatever flavor it takes, schools must invest in STEM. Students must be inspired and learn. Parents must also be on board and supportive of any necessary changes in curriculum. They need to reinforce in their kids not so much what is on their plates because of starving children elsewhere. But, they should be pushing their kids to do their homework since others out there are starving for our jobs.
Elly D. Lasson, Ph.D., is a commentator on issues related to careers, employment and job search. He leads a nonprofit organization called Joblink which supports the employment objectives of members of the Jewish community. He studied in Yeshivas Ner Yisrael (B.T.L.) and earned his B.A. in Psychology from UMBC and his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in Organizational Psychology from Wayne State University.
By Elly D. Lasson, Ph.D.