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The Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) Crisis: What Should We Do?

Originally published March 19, 2013

For the last few decades we have had to face the harsh realities that our educational system has failed us in the critically important areas of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Based on an international assessment of the 15-year-olds in 70 countries, the United States scored 14th in reading, 17th in science, and 25th in mathematics. What does this mean for the country and for our future?

Historical leadership in STEM has directly contributed to a deep pool of innovation that has driven and maintained a strong economic base and high standards of living. However, the U.S. has not maintained that leadership position. As stated in the ACT-IAC Paper entitled Educating our Workforce for Today’s Jobs in Science and Technology,* this can and should be viewed as a “silent crisis.” Many citizens believe that we are still world leaders in these fields when we are actually trending in the opposite direction.

What we are continuing to see is a steady decline in interest and engagement in STEM-related careers. As the downward trend continues, the U.S. increasingly falls short on producing and maintaining an adequate pipeline of STEM-educated professionals. Jobs in STEM are increasing three times faster than other jobs in the rest of the economy; and, as a result, by 2018 the U.S. faces a projected deficit of 230,000 qualified advanced-degree STEM professionals. The demand for personnel in these fields will only continue to grow; to remain competitive, the U.S. needs to close the gap between the knowledge and skills needed in STEM, and the number of available professionals to fill those needs.

Looking specifically at the employment front, a mere five percent of the U.S. workforce is employed in STEM fields. Yet the STEM workforce accounts for more than fifty percent of the nation’s sustained economic growth. Looking forward, society’s ever-increasing dependence on technology and information continues to create a growing demand for STEM-educated and capable talent in the workforce.

Today we see a demand in STEM-related positions that blend multiple STEM and non-STEM capabilities. Some of the fastest growing job segments, but with the smallest amount of available talent, are in these areas. Some examples are director of cloud transformation, social media architect, and augmented reality scientist; and the job of business architect was unheard of five years ago. These positions require a mix of technology and business process knowledge, and the ability to use both disciplines to drive more efficient operations. They are often aligned on the business, not technology, side of an organization. Similarly, data scientists are new on the career scene. The demand today is extremely high for people who can function as data scientists and produce business value from the 2.5 quintillion bytes of data society creates every day. Data scientists must have the ability to cull information from structured, unstructured and semi-structured data, identify patterns and analyze behaviors to drive informed business decisions and actions.

There is a growing awareness of this “silent crisis,” and many programs are in motion to reverse our negative trending. The Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) was established by Congress in 1976 to coordinate federal programs and activities in support of STEM education as well as to advise the president on the effects of science and technology on domestic and international affairs. In addition, President Obama launched the “Educate to Innovate” campaign in 2009 to improve the participation and performance of students in STEM. In response, agencies such as NASA are engaging students through STEM-directed competitions in schools pioneering integral educational platforms. These competitions will meet President Obama’s vision of developing innovative approaches to spark and improve student interest and achievement in STEM.

Many other private, state and local programs exist as well. However, as also noted in the ACT-IAC paper,* the result to date has been a disjointed approach with no standardized means to evaluate our progress or what actions and programs yield the greatest outcomes. So we must start by recognizing that the current STEM initiatives exist but are totally inadequate for the future. The chart below illustrates the amounts spent by the federal STEM initiatives as a percent of the total education expenditures nationwide.

Source: A Report from the Federal Inventory of STEM Education. Fast-Track Action Committee,
Committee on STEM Education, National Science and Technology Council (December 2011).

The major recommendations outlined in the paper* fall in three major areas: leadership, education and training, and digital infrastructure. They are brought forward in a “call to action” to increase leadership and visibility to drive increased focus on importance of STEM education. Specifically, they focus on the following goals:
  1. Increasing the visibility and leadership to drive STEM.
  2. Creating measurable training and education.
  3. Providing universal access to broadband digital infrastructure.
Let’s look at them individually.
  1. Focus federal leadership by establishing a national challenge for STEM through increased public awareness campaigns, improved coordination efforts, innovative grant and tax incentive programs, and a more vocal and urgent expression of the STEM problem to the American people.

    There are many initiatives to support the achievement of this goal. They cover a wide gamut, and some are rather innovative. Among them are competitions, specialized portals, marketing programs, spotlighting federal STEM careers, tax incentives, in addition to gaming, online workshops and mobile apps.

    But the most impassioned call is for “a STEM leader to launch a coordinated approach across all levels of government and key constituents.” This is urgent. The suggestion is to take the Committee on STEM Education (CoSTEM), currently a temporary entity housed at the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC), and make it permanent and maneuver it to become the principal champion for STEM at the national level. Beyond that, it will need a leader who can embody the importance of its role in our nation’s future.

  2. Establish a permanent CoSTEM and elevate its role in the federal government’s leadership.

    This goal has been supplemented with a series of suggested supporting actions: establishing a catalyzing national mission and vision to steer and align federal programs and to empower CoSTEM; charging it with coordinating and leveraging federal, state, and local STEM initiatives as well as those from private industry; establishing a STEM leadership position at an executive level for federal agencies, adding industry and academic advisors and delivering the completed five-year STEM Strategic Plan.

    Most importantly, there is a call to establish a clear, consistent and repeatable methodology to set and measure the outcomes of federal STEM Initiatives. This is essential to make sure that the actions taken to drive STEM involvement and fill the STEM pipeline yield positive and intended outcomes. There are several supporting recommendations. Among them are the establishment of a repository for STEM research; the improvement of information dissemination on what works, best practices and lessons learned; creation of joint working groups of federal, private and local teachers; improvement of measurement efforts; sharing of achievement and enrollment data to help improve STEM measurement programs; and the development of predictive analytics that improve STEM data collection.

  3. Complete deployment of broadband digital infrastructure to provide tools and training to improve digital literacy.

    This is the last specific goal detailed in the ACT-IAC paper,* and it addresses the fact that as a nation we know that broadband will be both an imperative and a challenge for our future. Almost one-third of Americans do not use it today for variety of reasons including cost or low digital literacy. Some of the early issues around the so-called “digital divide” that emerged as warnings decades ago are now here, especially for historically marginalized groups. In fact, there are 14 million people without broadband infrastructure access, meaning that they could not obtain it even if they required it and could afford it. And this access is particularly important as an enabler of many of the action items listed in the previous two goals.

    In support of this goal, there are several recommendations proposed, including a plea to continue deploying broadband infrastructure to all homes and businesses; the establishment of standards for digital educational content; the development of innovative broadband solutions including mobile applications; and the training of educators to maximize digital resources with a focus on diversity of devices; and the integration of online learning into the daily classroom experience, especially in the STEM areas starting in kindergarten or earlier.
In conclusion, STEM education is critical to our future, and we are currently nowhere near where we need to be as a nation. It is a “silent crisis” because it has not received enough attention and focus. The ACT-IAC paper* embodies a “call to action” via a series of initiatives that “increase leadership and visibility” of STEM education. Hopefully this can help to reverse the trends and resolve the crisis that threatens our standing as beam of light and leadership on our planet.


* This is one of six articles addressing the six papers offering input to the new administration that resulted from the Quadrennial Government Technology Review (QGTR) commissioned by the ACT-IAC Institute for Innovation. The American Council for Technology (ACT) - Industry Advisory Council (IAC) is a non-profit educational organization and a unique public-private partnership dedicated to helping government use technology to serve the public. (www.actgov.org) The QGTR initiative’s purpose was “to take a strategic look at the role that technology can play in achieving federal government objectives and missions.” More information can be obtained at http://www.actgov.org/quadrennial.

A Steering Committee provided guidance and governance to the QGTR and the papers were prepared by teams drawn from IAC member companies.

Educating our Workforce for Today’s Jobs in Science and Technology was prepared by the following team:
Jodi Cart, Lockheed Martin (Editor)
Brad Center, Deloitte Services LP (Member)
Paula Ewen, Indus Corporation (Topic Lead)
Ryan Madden, Dev Technology (Member)
Sean Murphy, SAIC (Editor)
Angela Wilson, Sekon (Member)
Denise Wofford, Library of Congress (Government Liaison)
All six papers can be downloaded from the following link: http://www.actgov.org/quadrennial

SOURCE: Educating our Workforce for Today’s Jobs in Science and Technology

  • Dr. Ramon BarquinDr. Ramon Barquin

    Dr. Barquin is the President of Barquin International, a consulting firm, since 1994. He specializes in developing information systems strategies, particularly data warehousing, customer relationship management, business intelligence and knowledge management, for public and private sector enterprises. He has consulted for the U.S. Military, many government agencies and international governments and corporations.

    He had a long career in IBM with over 20 years covering both technical assignments and corporate management, including overseas postings and responsibilities. Afterwards he served as president of the Washington Consulting Group, where he had direct oversight for major U.S. Federal Government contracts.

    Dr. Barquin was elected a National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) Fellow in 2012. He serves on the Cybersecurity Subcommittee of the Department of Homeland Security’s Data Privacy and Integrity Advisory Committee; is a Board Member of the Center for Internet Security and a member of the Steering Committee for the American Council for Technology-Industry Advisory Council’s (ACT-IAC) Quadrennial Government Technology Review Committee. He was also the co-founder and first president of The Data Warehousing Institute, and president of the Computer Ethics Institute. His PhD is from MIT. 

    Dr. Barquin can be reached at rbarquin@barquin.com.

    Editor's note: More articles from Dr. Barquin are available in the BeyeNETWORK's Government Channel


  • Wendy HenryWendy Henry
    Wendy has more than 25 years of experience in information technology with a strong focus on applying emerging technologies to current business problems and information transformation, large-scale system integration and modernization efforts. While she has over 15 years experience in the postal sector, her experience spans both the federal and commercial market spaces with a keen understanding of their unique drivers. In the technology arena, she possesses a deep industry knowledge in geospatial and location-based intelligence and its untapped value proposition, in enterprise data management and the future potential of unstructured data in the business decision-making process. Overall, she is seen as an expert in driving innovation and technology discovery that leads to demonstrable value and results.

    Wendy is currently a Specialist Leader with Deloitte Consulting. She is active in ACT IAC, where she currently serves as a Steering Committee member for the Quadrennial Review with the ACT IAC Institute for Innovation. In the past, she has served as the co-chair for Geospatial on the ACT IAC’s Emerging Technology SIG. Wendy has a BA from William and Mary and an MS from George Mason University.

Recent articles by Dr. Ramon Barquin, Wendy Henry



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