Philanthropy's Role in Advancing STEM Education Is Vital

Philanthropy's Role in Advancing STEM Education Is Vital

We live in a globally competitive economy that demands a highly-skilled workforce — a workforce of critical thinkers and problem-solvers. Now more than ever, our nation's P-20 education system is being challenged to meet these demands by equipping students with high-level skills and graduating them prepared to compete and succeed.

While it is inspiring to see nationwide momentum building around the importance of ensuring that America's students are scientifically, mathematically, and technologically prepared for the global twenty-first century economy, there is work to be done. And philanthropy has a vital role to play in that work.

Researchers, educators and our political leaders have spent years connecting economic prosperity and global leadership to the valuable skills developed through science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education. And their focus on the issue has moved us closer to a point where STEM is a widely embraced national imperative.

From economists to policy makers to parents, there is growing recognition that efforts to develop the problem-solving, critical thinking, collaboration, and communication skills of all students not just those pursuing STEM careers translates into personal, societal, and economic benefits. These are the skills that will fuel long-term innovation and productivity in all industries, including technology, health care, clean energy, and national security.

Indeed, with the adoption of the internationally benchmarked Common Core Standards and assessments, increased cross-sector collaboration, improved data sharing across states and educational systems, and broader public awareness, tangible advancements are being made to ensure that we are building a globally competitive and world-leading STEM workforce.

For example, the adoption of Common Core Standards will make a world-class education available to nearly every student in the country. Common Core sets a precedent that excellence is expected in every classroom. And while we all know that widespread adoption of the standards will take time and be difficult, it must be done if we are to improve on our current global academic rankings of twenty-first in science and twenty-fifth in math.

Even in the midst of these advances, however, the pace of progress must be accelerated.

As U.S. employers desperately search for skilled workers, nearly six hundred thousand high-wage jobs go unfilled each year. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment in STEM-related occupations is projected to grow two times faster over the next decade than the average for all other occupations. It is also reported that 65 percent of individuals with bachelor's degrees in STEM- related fields earn more than their peers with master's degrees in non-STEM occupations.

Business and industry are clamoring for a workforce rich in twenty-first century skills skills like those cultivated through STEM education. And they rely on the P-20 education system to supply the workforce pipeline with individuals who are creative, critical thinkers prepared to keep America on the cutting-edge of innovation.

At the same time, schools are clamoring for quality teachers with the expertise and skills needed to inspire the next generation of STEM workers and leaders. We must prepare our teachers, beginning in the lower grades, to provide learning opportunities where students see the relevancy of what they are learning through the application of those skills to the world around them.

With opportunity on our doorstep, one of the greatest values foundations and philanthropists can offer is a shared voice around the critical importance of STEM education for students and the nation.

Foundations, in particular, are uniquely positioned to help shape and encourage dialogue on the state and national levels, convene diverse groups around common goals, develop strategic partnerships, foster innovation, facilitate collaboration, contribute expertise, leverage public and private resources, and, when appropriate, bring proven practices to scale.

While market data tells us we must increase the production of STEM-skilled workers and better connect workforce talent with available opportunities, it is imperative that we also strive to build a high-expectations culture that celebrates rigorous academic experiences, with an emphasis on STEM skills and knowledge for all students. And, in the traditional American spirit, we must do it now or watch as other countries continue to pass us by.

Indeed, as I write this, more than 40 percent of all degrees awarded in China are awarded in STEM fields, while less than 13 percent of U.S. degrees are awarded in STEM. What's more, only 17 percent of engineering students in the U.S. are women, while fewer than 14 percent are African American or Hispanic.

Helios Education Foundation is committed to advancing the academic preparedness of students in Arizona and Florida, and STEM education is at the heart of our efforts.

Through our partnerships, we are focused on increasing rigor and relevance in the classroom, enhancing STEM knowledge and skills in teachers, creating unique STEM experiences for students both inside and outside the classroom, fostering a college-going culture that leads students to STEM and other high-demand careers, and facilitating systems-wide learning and coordination as well as best practice implementation.

We recently invested over $4 million in Science Foundation Arizona's Arizona STEM Network to further develop a statewide resource for administrators and teachers who want to learn and share STEM programs, knowledge, and practices from both inside and outside the state. Our collective goal is to pilot more STEM-focused schools across Arizona, increasing access to rigorous, engaging STEM education for all students, including those from underrepresented populations.

In many states, STEM education has become a uniting force for government, businesses, nonprofits, and educators eager to work toward visionary and productive goals designed to create opportunities for students and to meet the needs of industry and employers.

With the philanthropic community assuming its seat at the table and providing continued support for STEM education initiatives, we are all helping to lay a foundation of creative innovation and critical thinking that bodes well for our future.

Paul Luna is president and CEO of the Helios Education Foundation.