A Vision for STEM Education in America

Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) have been the foundation for discovery and technological innovation throughout American history. Americans with a strong foundation in STEM have electrified the Nation, harnessed the power of the atom, put men on the Moon and rovers on Mars, developed the internet, designed computers that fit in your pocket, created imaging machines that reveal the inner workings of the body, and decoded the human genome.


These stunning achievements have transformed the human experience, inspired generations, and fostered the strong public support for STEM education and research. The pace of global innovation is accelerating along with the competition for scientific and technical talent.


Today, the economic prosperity and national security of the United States rests increasingly on its capacity for continued scientific and technological innovation. America’s national innovation base depends more than ever on a strong, cross-sector collaboration around common STEM education interests and goals—a STEM ecosystem—that can provide all Americans with access to high-quality STEM education throughout their lifetimes.


Establishing a path to basic STEM literacy for everyone is vital to preparing a diverse workforce needed for the United States to lead and prosper in an increasingly competitive world driven by advanced technology.

Over the past 25 years, STEM education has been evolving from a convenient clustering of four overlapping disciplines toward a more cohesive knowledge base and skill set critical for the economy of the 21st century. The best STEM education provides an interdisciplinary approach to learning, where rigorous academic concepts are coupled with real-world applications and students use STEM in contexts that make connections between school, community, work, and the wider world.


The American STEM enterprise is composed of a constellation of public and private sector organizations providing education and training in myriad ways and conducting research and development (R&D) across all sectors of the economy. STEM education and training occurs from pre-kindergarten to high school (preK-12); both in school and after school; from undergraduate to postdoctoral studies; and through technical education, internships, apprenticeships, community colleges, and retraining programs.


Although preK-12 education in the United States is primarily a State, local, and Tribal responsibility, the Federal Government plays an important role in fostering educational excellence, including supporting and disseminating the latest discoveries on what works in teaching and learning and facilitating equal access.

Federal agencies support education and workforce development programs and sustain the national R&D enterprise through ongoing support of post-secondary education and R&D, including R&D that captures the imagination of the public and inspires the next generation of STEM learners.


The State of STEM Education

The United States has a higher education system that is the envy of the world, providing undergraduate and graduate degrees in STEM and conducting research that is an engine for American prosperity and security.


That engine depends upon a diverse pool of well-prepared students. Even for those not headed for higher education, STEM skills are increasingly important for all career paths and for all people to succeed throughout their lives. STEM skills such as computational thinking, problem-finding and solving, and innovation are crucial for people working to manufacture smarter products, improve healthcare, and safeguard the Nation, and these skills are valuable assets across many other fields and job categories.


The success of the Nation demands a STEM-literate modern workforce and Americans adept at navigating an increasingly high-tech, digital, and connected world. Recognizing that a quality STEM education should be accessible to Americans of all ages, backgrounds, communities, and career paths, organizations from across the entire STEM ecosystem have been working to improve STEM education and training, with many examples of success.


STEM-focused schools and informal learning programs have been established across the country. Federal investments are supporting a wide spectrum of STEM education activities spanning all age groups and learning environments. Businesses, nonprofits, and professional societies have built programs to support STEM learners, both locally and nationally.


These successes form a foundation upon which to build much needed improvements in STEM education and keep the United States globally competitive.


According to the National Science Board’s Science and Engineering Indicators 2018, Americans’ basic STEM skills have modestly improved over the past two decades but continue to lag behind many other countries.


According to the Indicators, from 2006–2015, American 15-year-olds still tended to score below the international average in mathematics skills, and at or slightly above the international average in science skills. Recent data from a test commonly taken by college-bound high school students found that only 20 percent are ready for courses typically required for a STEM major. Other countries are doing a better job preparing their students: the Indicators show that in the past 15 years, India and China have outpaced the United States in the number of science and engineering (S&E) bachelor’s degrees conferred. Together, these two countries have produced almost half of the total degrees, with India at 25 percent and China at 22 percent of the global total.


By comparison, American S&E bachelor’s degrees comprised only 10 percent of the global total, while the demand from U.S. employers for graduates with STEM degrees continues to grow.


STEM employment in the United States continues to grow at a faster pace than employment in other occupations, and STEM workers command higher wages than their non-STEM counterparts. STEM degree holders enjoy higher earnings, regardless of whether they work in STEM or non-STEM occupations.


Despite the value and importance of STEM skills, not all Americans have equal access to STEM education or are equally represented in STEM fields. Women, persons with disabilities, and three racial and ethnic groups—Blacks or African Americans, Hispanics or Latinos, and American Indians or Alaska Natives—are significantly underrepresented in S&E education and employment.


As also reported in the Indicators, although women make up half the population, they comprise less than 30 percent of the STEM workforce. Similarly, underrepresented racial and ethnic groups make up 27 percent of the population but comprise only 11 percent of the STEM workforce.


People with disabilities and veterans also face barriers to participating in STEM education and occupations. Americans from all backgrounds may experience geographic disparities that affect access; for example, of the 24 million Americans who lack access to basic broadband services, 83 percent live in rural or Tribal communities.


Although improved access to STEM education on its own will not create equal representation within STEM fields, equitable access is an essential priority for the Nation. More than a decade of studies by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine document the need to prepare learners for the jobs of the future and identify a host of challenges and opportunities within the U.S. STEM education ecosystem.

In the past year alone, Federal strategic plans and reports have called out the importance of STEM education to achieving national goals in areas including national security, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, quantum information science, and advanced manufacturing.


There can be no doubt that STEM education continues to be a significant priority for the United States.


Excerpted from Charting a Course for Success: America's Strategy for STEM Education, ed.gov/STEM