For more STEM professionals, we need a K-12 overhaul


Kindergarten teacher Cathie Kerr works with her students on the days jobs in Canton, Mich., Jan. 19, 2012. Updated state rules mean that public schools in Michigan must offer all-day kindergarten to receive full funding for each kindergarten pupil starting in September. (AP Photo/Detroit News, Daniel Mears) (Daniel Mears/AP)
February 18, 2012

 Over the past few years, high-ranking representatives from the Obama Administration have descended on Silicon Valley to talk jobs and competitiveness with high-tech business leaders.  As the president of a San Francisco-based telecommunications company, I’ve been able to join with administration officials and staff at a few of these events.

 In the context of one of the worst economies ever, it is disheartening to sit through these meetings and hear company after company request an increase in both the administration’s speed and breadth in bringing offshore talent to fill engineering, programming and other positions that require advanced training in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).  The more I reflect on this, the more I see there has been a huge failure in the lack of a coordinated response by educators,  businesses and government.

 Anyone with their finger on the pulse of reality realizes that the majority of the high paying jobs of tomorrow are rooted in STEM.  How do we fill the gap, catch up and eventually overtake many of the countries that have surpassed the U.S. in preparing their young job seekers for this new economic reality? 

Here are some simple suggestions that require no new significant inventions or massive funding:
We need to develop an alternative track to the K-8, four years of high school, four years of undergrad and then some single-track system — instead, we should identify youth who are fired up to learn and take on a challenging career.  You can see it with the Millenials. By the time they are 10, their brains are already teeming with information and curiosities that older generations could not even comprehend.  

 Another opportunity is to reintroduce arts and music back into primary education en masse, as these disciplines have been proven to stimulate creative and critical thinking and would positively impact STEM education.

 Young people, upon high school graduation, should be fast tracked into apprentice-type programs that are combined with coursework that can count toward a degree.  Get them engaged in the workforce as soon as possible.  Create targeted academies and alternatives to post high school and provide links to meaningful apprenticeships.

 We also need local businesses and business groups to step up and partner with schools to offer apprenticeships and training. But this partnership must be part of a coherent strategy, a formalized feeder system. The Discovery Education/3M Young Scientist Challenge is a good example of how businesses are reaching out to young people with STEM-focused programs. Educators and the government can act in concert to multiply these efforts drastically and on a more local/regional level. 

 Finally, federal and state governments, in the short term, need to become the conveners and facilitators connecting business and educational institutions.  They should create direct connectors between high schools, community colleges and apprentice programs that focus on fields in STEM. 

The federal government should also take a hard look at the No Child Left Behind law (NCLB), which, in the end, seems to have sucked the system dry of innovation and a focus on critical thinking and an advancement of children in the areas of STEM. NCLB focuses on those whose performance is weakest, with the aim of bringing them up to minimal acceptable standards. While that’s important socially, it can’t be allowed to get in the way of making sure that those with the greatest talents get the resources and mentorship to be as good as they can be.

 Each of those groups must work together through a single coordinated lens to align the funding and incentives and design a solution that identifies, trains and fills jobs in the areas of STEM.

 Matt Bauer is president and co-founder of San Francisco-based BetterWorld Telecom, the leading sustainable business to business voice and data carrier in the U.S.

 

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