There are dozens of important questions that should be asked of the Republican candidates running for president when they take the stage Thursday in Cleveland, including their views on immigration, taxes, trade and the Iran nuclear agreement. But when it comes to ensuring U.S. global competitiveness for the next two decades, there is no question more important than this: How can the U.S. ensure more young people enter careers in the STEM fields – science, technology, engineering and math?
The U.S. will face a global competitiveness crisis over the next 20 years. If it’s not addressed, it will put our nation at a strategic disadvantage for decades to come. India and China are training a million engineers each year, and the U.S. lags behind. By 2018 – in only three years – there will be 1.8 million jobs in the U.S. that are unfilled because there are not enough individuals with the necessary technical skills to fill them. This should be the current generation’s moonshot moment. We need to expand the pool of technical talent in order to find and nurture the next Steve Wozniak, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg – because there is no guarantee that the next big thing will come from the U.S. It could very well come from a lab in Brussels, Budapest or Beijing.
Increasing the pool of STEM students is indeed a generational challenge, and we need a national STEM strategy that addresses four fundamental issues.
- First, how do we transition America’s classrooms from analog to digital, from whiteboards to tablets?
The FCC took a major step in the right direction when it increased funding for wireless broadband in schools by billions of dollars, but considerable work remains to ensure that students have the devices they need and a digital curriculum designed for the contemporary age.
States need to move to digital textbooks, and colleges need to provide incentives to take computer science and other technical classes. If we put technology in the hands of students starting as early as kindergarten, there is no question that more will embrace the challenge and learn to be passionate about technology.
- Second, how do we ensure that students understand the opportunities that a career in STEM holds?
More and more companies are stepping up to the plate through STEM mentoring programs such as US2020, a White House-inspired initiative in which companies pledge that 20 percent of their workforce will engage in STEM mentoring by the year 2020. By interacting directly with technology leaders, students can better understand the power of innovation and the myriad ways they can build incredible careers in this field.
- Third, how do we open the door to careers in STEM for students from all backgrounds?
We need to do much more to encourage girls and students from underserved communities to seek STEM careers. There are existing programs that do this incredibly well, such as Girls who Code, Citizen Schools, Junior Achievement, Girl Scouts and many more. The MIND Research Institute has developed innovative software that transforms the way math is taught (and has doubled and tripled proficiency scores for students in the program.) We need to harness the power of innovation to help confront this challenge.
- Fourth, how do we ensure that students remain interested in STEM from elementary school, through middle school and into high school?
We need to rethink the way math and science are taught, moving away from rote memorization and test taking and toward hands-on learning. The goal should be to create a spark of interest in these subjects that will endure through a student’s entire education.
Thursday night – the night of the first presidential debate – promises to be good political theater, as the Republican candidates share a stage for the first time. But at a moment when our nation faces serious challenges, we also need to activate a national discussion on global competitiveness for the long term – a discussion that begins with each candidate’s plan to improve America’s STEM capabilities.
Linda Moore is president and CEO of TechNet, the national, bipartisan network of innovation economy CEOs and senior executives. Twitter: @TechNetUpdate www.technet.org