In all the years I have been training teachers, there is nothing more important than this. STEM instruction must not be a fad; it must succeed.
Our society has changed, and the educational model that serves it must keep pace or we will fall further behind. Long ago, public education was designed to instill content mastery into the minds of students. The more content you could learn, the more marketable you were when you sought a career. Content mastery is no longer the primary task of education. Due to the acceleration of technology, content is fluid and grows exponentially. Even if I could teach my middle school students all the current educational content, it would do no more than ensure that they were dinosaurs when they exit high school. While content still has a value, today’s students must be taught how to learn over what to learn.
Today’s employers value cooperative skills, creativity, and problem solving over mastery of content. STEM and PBL assure students develop these skills.
Today’s jobs don’t look like the ones of the past either. As recently as my own childhood, middle class America was largely connected to the manufacturing sector. If one parent had a job at a mill or plant, the family could live comfortably on that wage. Manufacturing employed a large swath of the workforce who had moved beyond entry level work yet didn’t hold a professional degree.
Today however, many of the manufacturing jobs have moved overseas. This has left us with a dichotomized employment world comprised of low-paying and high-paying jobs with an empty midsection. As fewer and fewer people find work in manufacturing, they are forced into entry-level employment if they don’t hold a professional degree. If this doesn’t change, tomorrow’s workers who lack a professional degree will be forced into low-paying service industry positions. This requires both parents in a home to find employment in order to cling to the middle income band.
This doesn’t mean that every student must attend college. In fact, many STEM-based careers require technical and vocational education. STEM careers are the fastest-growing segment of the job market; they will take the place of the shrinking manufacturing sector that served middle class America. In fact, they will more than offset this because STEM careers offer pay in line with professional degrees. And these lucrative jobs already exist for our students.
If America does not prepare its workers for the opportunity to enter STEM fields, we must look elsewhere, for these jobs will be filled. The question is, will our students be at the back of the line, or the front?