The most important resolution: STEM education

Vince Bertram

Our nation’s education crisis is not exaggerated, nor is the risk to our economic prosperity and national security. The United States Department of Commerce estimates that by 2018, our country will have 1.2 million unfilled jobs in the science, technology, engineer, and math (STEM) fields because the workforce will not possess the necessary skills or interest to fill them —this in a country with a 7 percent unemployment rate.

An analysis of the recent National Assessment for Education Progress (NAEP) results—often referred to as the Nation’s Report Card—paints a bleak picture. The tests measure the progress of our nation’s fourth- and eighth-grade students in math and reading every two years. While we saw a slight improvement (a one-percentage-point increase in math and a two-percentage-point increase in reading from 2011 to 2013), the real headline is this: overall achievement among our nation’s fourth and eighth graders from 2007 to 2013 is flat. To put it another way, over the past half of a decade, nearly half of American fourth- and eighth-grade students continue to fail to perform at a basic level in math and reading.

Despite these results, I am confident we can change course and better prepare our nation’s youth for college and careers. After all, our nation has a proven record of resilience and focus. But success will not happen without a clear path carefully and intentionally created by educators, administrators, business, nonprofit, and government leaders, as well as anyone else concerned about the United States’ future. Together we can narrow the U.S. skills gap.

The path to solving the skills gap is clear: help students develop the interest and the collaboration, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills necessary to succeed in the global economy. Start by implementing interesting, relevant, rigorous, and hands-on STEM curriculum in schools. In all schools. For all students. Offer STEM curriculum to students in elementary schools to foster their life-long interest in learning. Convince students that they can be good at math and science. Provide teacher training—and ongoing professional development opportunities—that catalyze educators’ passion and talent for teaching STEM subjects. Connect businesses, government entities, nonprofits, and school systems into engaged networks committed to supporting STEM education. And invite students into real-world STEM workplaces so they can experience the exciting opportunities available and better understand what it will take to achieve them.

These are all things Project Lead The Way (PLTW), the organization I am proud to lead, is doing. As the nation’s leading provider of rigorous activity-, project-, and problem-based STEM curriculum, we are currently in more than 5,000 schools in all fifty states, serving more than 600,000 students annually. To excite students about STEM even earlier, we have developed an elementary program, PLTW Launch, which is currently being piloted in forty-three elementary schools across the U.S. and will go nationwide this fall. We are also training thousands of teachers—over 3,500 in the last year alone—through our high-quality teacher professional development model. Additionally, we have gained the recognition and support of numerous government, corporate, and nonprofit organizations, including Change the Equation (changetheequation.org), which recently named PLTW as one of only four high-quality STEM programs that are immediately scalable on a national level.

We know that PLTW works. Studies show that over 93 percent of PLTW students intend to pursue at least a two-year or four-year degree after high school. Of the high-school seniors taking PLTW courses, 70 percent intend to study engineering, technology, computer science, or another applied science. Anecdotal evidence is compelling as well: In Toppenish, WA, a rural area with a 95 percent minority student population (nearly 100 percent of which qualifies for free and reduced lunch), the high school implemented both the PLTW Engineering and Biomedical Science programs. Within three years of implementation, more than 50 percent of students are now enrolled in PLTW classes; 48 percent of those students are female. Enrollment in high-level math and science classes has soared, including a 226 percent increase in calculus enrollment. An examination of the PLTW implementation shows that students who took PLTW courses increased their participation in STEM-related AP courses, were more likely to attend college, and improved their scores on state exams. The district has now implemented PLTW’s elementary, middle, and high school programs—a full K–12 model—because they know it works.

That’s just one example of the many PLTW success stories across the country. Every day, we see the results of dedicated teachers engaging students in learning and real-world experiences that will catalyze a lifelong interest in STEM. There is nothing more exciting than when students “get it”—and when they understand the relevancy of what they are learning and how it translates to their future.

As we make our 2014 resolutions, let’s not forget the future of our students, the quality of the educational experiences we provide them, and the threat of the persistent and widening skills gap on America’s economic prosperity. The time is now to change course and give every student in every U.S. school the high-quality, rigorous, and relevant learning they deserve—the kind of learning that will prepare them for future success, and as a result, ensure that America remains the greatest country in the world.

Dr. Vince Bertram is president and CEO of Project Lead The Way, Inc. (PLTW), a nonprofit organization and the nation’s leading provider of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) programs. Under his leadership since 2011, PLTW has experienced record program growth of over 50 percent, serving the nation in more than 5,000 schools and reaching nearly 600,000 students annually. Prior to joining PLTW, Dr. Bertram was a teacher, principal, and, most recently, superintendent of Indiana’s third-largest urban school district.

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