The premise that Mark Zuckerberg holds the fate of the United States in his sweaty little hands is highly debatable, and, well, nauseating. But the general idea behind President Obama’s recent tour of West Coast technology giants—which included Apple and Intel—is admirable.
Obama has long been a champion of STEM education—and industry involvement is an essential ingredient. A recent report by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) highlights the importance of “creating opportunities for inspiration through individual and group experiences outside the classroom.”
At the annually held National Space Symposium earlier this year, companies such as Raytheon and Booz Allen Hamilton talked extensively about the importance of growing a strong US workforce that can raise the bar in science and technology and compete in a global economy.
The US faces a number of challenges in STEM education. By the year 2050, fifty percent of the US population will be non-white, and because today’s minorities tend to fall further down on the socioeconomic scale, school resources and teacher effectiveness will become ever more strained.
Further, as a result of low performance in some districts, standardized testing has become a way to measure and weed out flailing schools. Although this might sound great in theory, the reality is that many schools are now “teaching to test,” and a bare-bones curriculum often drains the lifeblood from programs which are not vital to test scores—programs like engineering and technology.
At the same time the US is suffering from a lack of standardization in science and technology. Although the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) is developing a framework to guide new science education standards, there’s really no standardized curriculum across the entire country. The US education system is as diverse and fragmented as its immigrant population. This is in contrast to countries like China and India—forging ahead in the global economy— which have a strong national curriculum set by their governments. If the Chinese government wants to drive innovation in engineering it simply mandates classroom teaching to this end.
But in the US we tend to frown on government mandates. Instead we thrive on our own innovation and do-it-yourself attitude. So then, industry must role up its sleeves and helps to develop a pipeline of workforce-ready kids.
It might be as simple as donating software to a low-income school or inviting children into the work environment so they can gain real-world experience. These types of programs can also benefit teachers, who reconnect through industry visits and gain valuable insight into what’s required and expected in today’s top companies. They can then return to the classroom armed with the knowledge and resources to develop a more effective curriculum.
And it’s not all one-sided. By improving workforce readiness, industry cuts down on-the-job-training and helps to cement the next generation of workers. Some industries can even benefit from allowing kids to test drive new products. It’s a great way to gather out-of-the-box perspectives and collect feedback from next-generation users.