Education in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) is a priority for policymakers that want the United States to remain competitive in these fields. While this discussion has gone on for some time, the rapid pace of technological advancement makes STEM education an increasingly urgent topic. Preparing a workforce that can adapt to rapid technology change remains a critical policy challenge. To address these topics, the Brookings Institution recently hosted Charles Bolden, the administrator of NASA, and Dean Kamen, and founder of For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST).
Bolden and Kamen both emphasized the need to change the culture around STEM careers. In a cultural context, these careers are far less celebrated than professional sports or entertainers. Students spend hours every day after school in sports practice and professional athletes sign multi-million dollar contracts, but there is no similar level of excitement around STEM jobs in spite of their economic importance. Organizations like NASA and FIRST try to close this excitement gap with their educational outreach efforts. Kamen adopted a competition model for FIRST robotics competitions to capture the excitement of sports with added the possibility that every student participant in can turn into a professional. Likewise, NASA engineers regularly visit schools across the country to expose students to STEM careers.
The two panelists also highlighted the need also make STEM education immediately applicable to students. Science and math are often taught by themselves without demonstrating their applications in technology and engineering. While small numbers of astronauts travel to space, many of the technologies they need to survive can also solve problems on Earth. For example, the same systems that recycle water to keep astronauts hydrated in the International Space Station can also purify water in areas that lack access to clean drinking water. Meanwhile, FIRST robotics competitions give students a way to apply STEM knowledge in a team setting.
Finally, the panelists discussed the policy implications of STEM education. For NASA, the timeline of projects like the International Space Station and a planned mission to Mars stretch into decades, requiring a steady supply of talented astronauts, engineers, and scientists. More broadly, STEM skills are means of adapting to changing technology in the workplace. Although an education once provided workers with the skills they needed for a lifelong career, this is no longer the case for many jobs. STEM education equips workers with a widely-applicable set of skills that can transfer to meet new workplace demands. Perhaps most important of these is the ability to learn, or as Kamen put it, “you have to learn how to learn, or you’re toast.”