American students are bored by math, science and engineering. They buy smartphones and tablets by the millions but don’t pursue the skills necessary to build them.
Engineers and physicists are often portrayed as clueless geeks on television, and despite the high pay and the importance of such jobs to the country’s future, the vast majority of high school graduates don’t want to go after them.
Nearly 90 percent of high school graduates say they’re not interested in a career or a college major involving science, technology, engineering or math, known collectively as STEM, according to a survey of more than a million students who take the ACT test. The number of students who want to pursue engineering or computer science jobs is actually falling, precipitously, at just the moment when the need for those workers is soaring. (Within five years, there will be 2.4 million STEM job openings.)
One of the biggest reasons for that lack of interest is that students have been turned off to the subjects as they move from kindergarten to high school. Many are being taught by teachers who have no particular expertise in the subjects. They are following outdated curriculums and textbooks. They become convinced they’re “no good at math,” that math and science are only for nerds, and fall behind.
That’s because the American system of teaching these subjects is broken. For all the reform campaigns over the years, most schools continue to teach math and science in an off-putting way that appeals only to the most fervent students. The mathematical sequence has changed little since the Sputnik era: arithmetic, pre-algebra, algebra, geometry, trigonometry and, for only 17 percent of students, calculus. Science is generally limited to the familiar trinity of biology, chemistry, physics and, occasionally, earth science.
These pathways, as one report from the National Academy of Education put it, assume that high school students will continue to study science and math in college. But fewer than 13 percent do, usually the most well-prepared and persistent students, who often come from families where encouragement and enrichment are fundamental. The system is alienating and is leaving behind millions of other students, almost all of whom could benefit from real-world problem solving rather than traditional drills.
Only 11 percent of the jobs in the STEM fields require high-level math, according to Anthony Carnevale, director of the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University. But the rest still require skills in critical thinking that most high school students aren’t getting in the long march to calculus.
Finding ways to make math and science exciting for students who are in the middle of the pack could have a profound effect on their futures, providing them with the skills that will help them get technical jobs in the fields of food science, computer networking or medicine. It would entice many students who are insecure in their own abilities into advanced careers. But it is going to require a fundamentally different approach to teaching these subjects from childhood through high school. Here are a few of the many possible ideas to begin that change.