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Patrick R. Riccards's picture
For more than two decades, Patrick has worked at the intersection of education policy, research, and communications. He previously served as chief of staff to the National Reading Panel and as...
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STEM Ed (and Teacher Prep) for a New Economy

For years, the United States has experienced a shift from a national, analog, industrial economy to a global, digital, information economy. All of our social institutions—education, finance, government, media, and health—were created for the former. But we live in the latter, in a society that demands we transition from the models of the past to those needed today. Whether by repairing existing institutions or outright replacing them, change is needed.

This is particularly true in education. As a sector, we have been reluctant to embrace change, whether in the form of research findings, shifting demographics, technological advances, or similar triggers that demand change in other fields. Even as our methods of old work less and less well than they did previously, we have too often resisted the necessary transitions.

Slowly, though, we are seeing a transformation in public education. This has been particularly true in the ways we prepare children with the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) skills they will need to be college and career ready.

Several years ago, I was fortunate enough to work with the National Governors Association, helping six states ramp up their STEM education efforts. Each state approached the challenge differently. Some, for instance, chose to engage the business community, while others looked to bring together K–12 and higher education. Regardless of approach, each state saw the power of a STEM-literate community, and the dangers—both to education and the economy—if STEM skills weren’t properly addressed.

I subsequently had the opportunity to spend some time in Pennsylvania as the director of the Pennsylvania STEM Initiative. Born of a grant from NGA and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Pennsylvania’s efforts in STEM focused on connecting all sides of the learning process, while focusing on historically disadvantaged populations. We were able to work with industry to map out what jobs would be available in 10 or 20 years, then engage with school districts to ensure students were taking the math and science classes—and gaining the critical thinking skills—necessary to successfully fill those positions.

As important as this sort of work is, though, it didn’t fully address a critical component to a STEM-literate society. That piece is ensuring a strong supply of excellent STEM educators who can teach today’s learners. Whether one wants to become a rocket scientist or a poet, there is no denying that children today benefit from a background in the STEM disciplines. The big question is where we find the teachers, particularly in our high schools, to deliver that benefit.

It is one of the reasons I decided to join the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, where we are currently working in five states to construct a strong pipeline of excellent STEM educators for our nation’s high-need schools. In Georgia, Indiana, Michigan, New Jersey, and Ohio, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation now partners with a total of 28 universities to deliver STEM-focused teacher education. In each state, prospective teachers receive the strong academic preparation, valuable K–12 classroom-based experiences, and meaningful mentoring to become the STEM teachers our states, districts, and communities seek.

These programs work because states and their leaders see the value in them. Strong educator preparation results in excellent teachers. Excellent teachers ensure student mastery of needed knowledge and skills. That mastery helps provide the strong economy and citizenry we all seek.

One example of this commitment to the continuum is in New Jersey, where Garden State leaders have not only focused on successful STEM educator preparation and instruction, but are also looking at the long-term economic benefits coming from excellent STEM teachers and successful STEM learners.

The week of March 9 has been designated New Jersey STEM Week, with industry, academia, and government working together to spotlight the tremendous work done across the state in the STEM fields. From STEM Scholars to the NJ STEM Pathways Network to the New Jersey Science Olympiad State Tournament, the week celebrates the importance of science, tech, engineering, and math education. And it does so recognizing that New Jersey will need to fill 269,000 STEM jobs by 2018.

Those jobs will only be filled by successful, STEM-literate, career-ready individuals if we have a strong cadre of STEM educators working in New Jersey’s high schools. And those jobs are only filled when we recognize that many of those successful potential employees are attending high-need schools in the state, and can significantly benefit from all that excellent STEM teachers bring.

We need more states like New Jersey, recognizing the importance of STEM in industry, education, and public service. And we need more states that recognize that our global, digital information economy requires STEM to be taught in new and innovative ways, by well-prepared and effective STEM educators.