The acronym that can fix America’s youth unemployment problem

June 18

Until we take science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) seriously in our schools, American students will continue to lag the world. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

If you spend even a little time at a U.S. school, you can’t miss the excitement and sense of what’s possible in the eyes of our students. The enthusiastic and creative ways they play, embrace problem solving and learn is inspiring.

Yet these very spirits who hold the greatest hope for our nation aren’t being given the full training they need to thrive in a rapidly evolving world that demands science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills.

Over the past 50 years, technological innovation accounted for almost half of U.S. economic growth, and almost all of the 30 fastest-growing occupations in the next decade will require at least some background in STEM, according to Change the Equation.

However, among 15-year-old students, 29 nations had education systems with higher average scores than the United States in mathematics literacy, and 22 nations had higher average scores in science literacy, according to the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).

This lack of familiarity and success in math, science and similar subjects is one significant reason why students fail to pursue these courses after high school.

As a result, in a nation where nearly one in five youth are unemployed, many employers complain that they can’t fill their technical positions that require the skills that STEM education provides.

In the United States, youth unemployment is around 16 percent, roughly double that of the general population. It has such powerful consequences that it’s been called a ticking time bomb.

Its impact is already costing American taxpayers $25 billion annually in lost tax revenue and government benefit payouts.  And the social costs are even higher. Many studies related to youth unemployment point to the same consequences: depression, low self-esteem, loneliness, poor health, higher crime rates and even lower life expectancy.

While there isn’t a silver bullet for youth unemployment, there is a solution that can significantly impact both: STEM education.

STEM is important because although we have world-class teachers in our schools who are using the resources they have to make a difference in students’ lives, they need more tools to excite students about STEM and prepare them for what’s ahead.

That’s why Ekocycle, a partnership between both of our organizations, together with 3D Systems, is supporting Wednesday’s National Day of Making.  Together we’re committing to provide more than 1,500 Ekocycle Cube 3D printers and kits as part of a drive to ensure FIRST Robotics Competition and Tech Challenge teams have access to 3D printers for use in classroom and team-based learning projects.

As students learn how STEM is woven into almost every aspect of business and culture — from fashion and music to manufacturing and health care — they will be more eager to learn these vital subjects.

A report from the National Research Council stated, “Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) are cultural achievements that reflect our humanity, power our economy, and constitute fundamental aspects of our lives as citizens, consumers, parents, and members of the workforce. Providing all students with access to quality education in the STEM disciplines is important to our nation’s competitiveness.”

Take a look at what is happening in Boyle Heights, where the i.am.angel Foundation operates a STEM-focused after-school tutoring program. Grades have gone from dismal to 3.5 and 4.0 averages, and attendance is at 98 percent or better. Students want to come to school, and they are thriving.

Results like these are taking place in small pockets around the United States. That’s why we support organizations like FIRST Robotics Competition, which inspires youth to become science and technology leaders and innovators by growing their STEM skills and fostering well-rounded life capabilities.

We’ve learned that when you make STEM education fun and hands-on, when you help students participate in competitions such as robotics, 3D design and printing, data mapping and coding apps, students learn and they grow.

We believe in STEM programs because they transform perceptions about careers in math and technology.  They provide exciting, fun and creative pathways for students to learn the critical skills they’ll need to grow and thrive in the future.

We see the programs as a significant, if partial, way to boost U.S. education results and address youth unemployment.

While there is proposed government spending on STEM in 2015, more public and private investment is needed to overcome major barriers, such as teacher training and school funding for the programs.

Together let’s push to bring STEM to every U.S. school, let’s harness the curiosity and creativity of our youth, and let’s STEM the tide of unemployment and open the floodgates of hope and opportunity.

will.i.am is a philanthropist, entrepreneur and member of The Black Eyed Peas.  He is co-founder of Ekocycle and chief creative officer for 3D Systems. Perez is the chief sustainability officer of the Coca-Cola Company and leads the company’s efforts to enhance personal well-being, build strong communities and protect the environment.  

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