Encouraging students to pursue STEM

High schools need to do more

Did you know that only six percent of high school seniors will get a bachelors degree in a science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) field? At the same time, while many economic sectors are stagnant, STEM job openings will likely skyrocket over the next several decades. While so many are still looking for work, the U.S. is not going to be able to fill these openings. While only six percent of U.S. graduates have a degree in a STEM field, 47 percent of Chinese graduates do. There is no question that the United States is falling behind when it comes to STEM education. So why are our students so reluctant to pursue these types of degrees, and what can we do to fix the problem?

Unfortunately, our understanding of the problem is poor. We might gain a better understanding by comparing high schools that have a high rate of STEM majors among their graduates to those that do not. We can then compare their methods and gain some insight into what policies would encourage students to pursue STEM degrees. While we are able to track nationally how many students earn STEM degrees, most high schools have no way of knowing how their individual graduates are doing. Many high schools’ knowledge of their students’ performance ends when those students walk across the stage at graduation.

Such a problem extends beyond purely the issue of STEM; with the new focus of graduating students from high school who are “college and career ready,” the only metric we have to measure that is often how many students are going to college. This says nothing about how ready students are for higher education. The truly valuable information comes after students begin their post-secondary careers. How many students drop out of college? How many graduate within four years? Five years? How many switch from a STEM field to a different area? How many go on to graduate school? How many manage to keep a job if they don’t go to college? All of these questions have answers at a national level, but few high schools are monitoring the answers to these questions at a local level.

Individual high schools need to do a better job of monitoring this information. Imagine how powerful it would be for every high school in the country to have data on how well their students are doing after graduation. With the rise of the internet and the rapid integration of technology into the classroom, there is no longer any excuse for not monitoring the progress of high school graduates at a local level.

One method of doing this would be to integrate such feedback capabilities into high school alumni networks. High school alumni networks are incredibly valuable in their own right; giving high school students access to a large number of accessible adults who are in college or working in jobs is a powerful tool to inform a student when considering future options. Such a network can also be used by the faculty if, say, a calculus teacher wants to have an engineer come in and talk about how he uses calculus in his job. All that teacher would have to do in a well-built alumni network is log on to the website, search for graduates who majored in or are employed in engineering, and voila! Contact information appears and the timeless question of, “When are we ever going to use this?” is answered for students in that class.

Let’s imagine how such a system might work. When entering high school, students would create a student account on the network, connecting them to all the students who have graduated before them and giving them access to the kind of individualized college and career advice which most guidance departments could only dream of having the time to give. Upon graduation, students would input information into their newly upgraded “alumni” profile such as which college they are attending in the fall, what their intended major is, and perhaps which classes they took while at the high school. A year later, when the alumni are completing their first year of college, their account will send them an email (or many) and ask them to update their information. At the end of every year, this process will repeat, and students will additionally have the option of editing their profile at any point during the year. High school administrators would now have access to a veritable goldmine of information regarding how well their students are performing. Further down the road, they can even look at what kinds of careers their graduates are embracing. Such information would improve and tailor the delivery of a high-quality, 21st century education.

Many colleges already have similar systems. The model already exists, the technology already exists, and the desire to ensure that every high school graduate succeeds certainly exists. By constructing a basic alumni network, or leveraging one that is already in use, individual high schools can take the lead in solving a national problem.

virgil Bierschwale almost 10 years ago

While I agree that high schools need to do more, what about our business community?

When we set our kids up that they will have good paying careers for life if they do their part, and then we send their jobs to another country, what kind of message does that send to our kids?

I hear from people all the time at Keep America At Work who have spent their lives in the STEM arena and they can't buy a interview because our businesses have sent their jobs to china and india or replaced them with visa holders here at home.

Shame on all of us for encouraging our children and then doing our best to make sure that at some point in their lives everything that they have done will be for naught.

Anonymous almost 10 years ago

I agree with you Virgil. The so-called "STEM shortage" is completely outlandish. 200 applicants for every academic faculty job, almost 50 unemployment for new PhD's in the STEM fields.. anyone that alleges a shortage of qualified technical personnel in USA is completely mistaken. The only shortage is in American companies willingness to train new people and let them get their feet in the door.

I have a PhD in Biochemistry, and a two and a half year postdoc under my belt and the best that I can do is a part time job with no benefits.