Inequality hinders innovation. The key to closing the STEM skills gap lies in both reaching and engaging groups of youth.
For a country that has historically thrived on innovation, the United States may now be losing out on generations of innovators in science, mathematics, technology, and engineering. These innovators are essential to bridging the skills gap in STEM: an estimated 3 million STEM jobs in America are unfilled because there are not enough qualified workers to fill them.
Meanwhile, six out of ten children aren’t learning the minimum required in reading and math. In classrooms across the country, only 16 percent of high school students are proficient in math and express an interest in STEM fields.
Among students who do score well in math and science, there are large disparities in innovation by socioeconomic class, race, and gender, according to a study by the Equality of Opportunity Project. Innovators from low-income backgrounds who excelled at math are less likely to hold patents than their counterparts who come from higher-income families but did substantially worse in school. White children are three times more likely to become inventors than black children, and only 18 percent of inventors are female.
Many of these students from underrepresented backgrounds become “lost Einsteins”—academically talented people who would have had high-impact inventions had they become inventors. Looking at the STEM workforce, blacks represent 9 percent of workers and Hispanics represent 7 percent. Although women represent half of the STEM workforce, they are vastly underrepresented in engineering and computer science fields.
Many of these students from underrepresented backgrounds become ‘lost Einsteins’—academically talented people who would have had high-impact inventions had they become inventors.
Creating opportunities for students who have been traditionally underrepresented in STEM could boost innovation and economic growth immensely. According to an Equal Opportunity Project study, “If women, minorities, and children from low-income families were to invent at the same rate as white men from high-income families, the rate of innovation in America would quadruple.”
Yet to close the skills gap, it’s not just about fostering hard STEM skills. It’s about casting a wider net and ensuring there are mixed opportunities for all students to engage in the STEM pipeline along the way. By creating a learning environment where every student has an opportunity to create, disparities to innovation among underrepresented groups can be reduced. And young people can ignite their interest in STEM fields while gaining what they need to succeed on the path to employment in STEM careers.
Here are three practical ways to expand access to innovation and increase student interest in STEM:
1. Support project-based learning.
To stay engaged, students need learning opportunities beyond traditional brick and mortar educational approaches. That’s where project-based learning comes in. It requires students to apply what they learn in the classroom to real-world challenges, giving tangible meaning to abstract equations and preparing students for academic, personal, and career success.
Project-based learning is effective for students of different backgrounds, including disadvantaged urban school populations. Project-based learning initiatives play a role in motivating students to pursue STEM careers, especially for women, minorities, and children from low-income families.
Schools can boost innovation by supporting project-based learning to give students more opportunities to collaborate with other peers interested in inventing. In the World Smarts STEM Challenge, high school teachers and students from different countries work together on gender-balanced, collaborative teams to create the best STEM solutions to global problems.
The challenge not only builds skills in innovation, problem solving, and cross-cultural collaboration, it also increases opportunities for diverse students to gain the skills and confidence needed to be successful in STEM careers. Before the challenge, 94 percent of students had never worked with students in another country, and 65 percent of US teams were from high-poverty schools. Overall, the challenge increased more than 90 percent of students’ enthusiasm for STEM subjects.
2. Create opportunities for virtual exchange.
Virtual exchange is important for young people because it builds their global competence and technology literacy. To innovate and be successful in their STEM careers, students need skills in cross-cultural communication and technology. Virtual exchange can increase access to meaningful global exchange for students who lack the financial resources to study abroad.
By breaking down stereotypes students may have about other countries through collaboration and relationship-building, virtual exchange can create meaningful connections between classrooms and foster global fluency. Communicating across cultures in order to create a product is challenging, so learning flexibility, openness, and patience is incredibly important in the process. In the working world, people across industries need these skills in order to create high-quality products and services while building respectful workplaces.
Virtual exchange can support STEM workforce development in the United States and abroad, especially as global industry challenges require collaboration across borders. Through programs like Global Solutions, US and Jordan postsecondary students work together virtually to innovate and solve authentic, real-world challenges while developing much-needed 21st century skills and develop enduring connections across regions and cultures.
3. Encourage design challenge thinking.
Design challenge thinking gives a solution-based approach to problem solving by challenging assumptions and identifying alternative strategies throughout the process. Utilizing a human-centered approach to innovation, design challenge thinking can transform results through unique and creative techniques that yield out-of-the-box thinking.
By incorporating design challenge thinking into program design, students and teachers can investigate an issue and create innovative solutions. In addition to inspiring students to innovate design challenge thinking also helps students learn essential 21st century skills.
Tailoring opportunities in project-based learning, virtual exchange, and design challenge thinking to diverse student backgrounds is important not just to reduce disparities, but to inspire student innovation and increase economic growth across the country and the world.
Preparing students for the real world, these opportunities enhance students’ skills in innovation, problem solving, and global citizenship that can lead directly to employment in STEM careers. This can be especially valuable as earnings of STEM workers continue to outpace those in other jobs—the average STEM worker earns about two-thirds more than someone in a non-STEM occupation.
Regardless, STEM education is vital for our future—not just to close the skills gap or support economic opportunity—to prepare youth for a world that is increasingly connected and give them the confidence to create, innovate, and collaborate across cultures to solve real-world problems on a global scale.
This article is part of a series on “solvable problems” within the context of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The Global Engagement Forum: Live takes place this October 10–11, 2018, bringing together leaders from across the private, public, and social sectors to co-create solutions and partnerships to address four urgent, yet solvable problems—closing the skills gap in STEM, reducing post-harvest food loss, ending energy poverty, and eliminating marine debris and ocean plastics. Learn more about the Forum here.