The “gap” between the United States and the rest of the world in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education is a hot topic with the beginning of another school year.
With this, it appears our future generation needs a new source of inspiration and initiative in the American public education system, very similar to that depicted through the eye of a teenager, Homer Hickam, and his transformation by the launch of Sputnik in the movie “October Sky.”
This country is being criticized and put on the defensive for lagging behind other developed countries in producing students proficient in the STEM fields.
Critics cite the challenge inherent if the United States is to compete successfully in both a current and future global STEM economy that desires innovation, creativity and knowledge in those disciplines.
Their concerns about our ability to compete can be found in figures from the National Center for Education Statistics showing that high school students in 29 industrialized nations outperformed American students in math in 2012, and students in 22 industrialized nations performed better than U.S. students in science.
There is a similar gap on the local level when it comes to how Buffalo Niagara stacks up for STEM-related job vacancies. Last year, according to a Brookings Institution analysis, our metro area ranked 66th out of 100 nationwide – with 36 percent – in the percentage of advertised job vacancies that required STEM skills. The analysis combined those with job openings in non-STEM fields to put the Buffalo metro area at 89th out of 100 nationally for how long those vacancies remained open.
With these gaps in mind, it is especially important for our community, as we begin the 2014-15 school year, to make a special effort to build a growing and vibrant pipeline of students pursuing STEM academic and professional opportunities.
That community includes teachers, administrators, business and not-for-profit partners and parents – especially parents.
Unfortunately it has become a cliché, but it is so true, that parents are the major influence on the academic success or failure of their child.
In a position statement, the National Science Teachers Association points to research that shows “when parents play an active role, their children achieve greater success as learners, regardless of socioeconomic status, ethnic/racial background, or the parents’ own level of education.”
In a “STEM Perceptions: Student & Parent Study” commissioned by Microsoft, the No. 1 influence cited by college students on their decision to pursue STEM was a parent, more than double percentage-wise than any other influence. In fact, close to three-quarters of STEM college students surveyed said their parents were influential to some degree in their decision to study STEM. Female STEM college students were also more likely than males to say “supportive parents” were an important factor in their success.
Ken Daly, president of New York operations for National Grid, which has supported student robotics competitions at the Buffalo Academy of Science Charter School, recently said students need to be exposed to robust science learning as early as the age of 2. For early ages, parental involvement is indeed the major catalyst for future success.
At the Buffalo Academy of Science Charter School, we gradually build parental involvement that creates positive influence every day on our students’ academic success and eventual pursuit of a STEM career.
We encourage parents to play an active role, regardless of their previous schooling experience with STEM-related subjects. It is more important for the child to know that the parent cares and understands the educational endeavor he or she is pursuing, than it is for he or she to be a “scientist.”
Avenues where the academy engages parents include individual parent orientation meetings about involvement in their child’s education, home visits by our faculty, guidance and administrative teams to support families and maintain effective communication throughout the year. Along with that, the academy parents take advantage of participating and supporting their children at the schoolwide science fair, robotics competitions, poetry slam, literacy nights and Taste of BASCS.
We are also looking at formalizing a parent-focused program, supported by local businesses and colleges, that could serve as a regional model in helping parents to be more active in supporting STEM studies and careers.
Such an effort is especially valuable if we are to add much-needed diversity to the makeup of the STEM workforce and attract not only females but also African-Americans and Latinos. The latter groups account for only 7 percent of the entire science and engineering workforce, and an increase here would go a long way to filling those STEM job vacancies.
As a community, we need to do work together to ensure that STEM success has every opportunity to begin at home. Such a collaborative effort will not only benefit individuals but also improve our region and ultimately put America back in the number one seat for STEM education again.
Mustafa Ersoy is director of Buffalo Academy of Science Charter School.