Experts Discuss How to Expand STEM Initiatives

As an eighth-grade science teacher, NEA Vice President Rebecca Pringle always encouraged her students to stick with science, hoping they would subsequently pursue careers in the field.

“I wanted to know that when they had a choice not to take science anymore, they would continue,” Pringle said during a panel discussion on Sept. 25. “But I was one teacher in one school.”

While there are many openings in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) jobs, many of them remain unfilled, creating a skills gap. And from 2003-12, African Americans accounted for only 10 percent of STEM-related jobs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. To address this disparity, Pringle and other leaders from associations, councils and businesses discussed ways to bridge the skills gap at the Congressional Black Caucus’ 44th Annual Legislative Conference.

Moderated by CNBC correspondent Sharon Epperson, the panel featured Pringle, Dr. Irving Pressley McPhail, president and chief executive officer of the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (NACME); Christine Scullion, director of human resources for the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM); and Chauncy Lennon, senior program director for workforce development at JPMorgan Chase.

During the discussion, Pringle pointed out that one-third of African American and Latino students do not have access to chemistry classes while one-fourth do not have access to Algebra II, both of which would help prepare them for careers in STEM. NEA has made some progress on this issue after partnering with New Jersey’s Center for Teaching and Learning, which added 60 new physics and chemistry teachers to New Jersey Public Schools. Through the Progressive Science and Math Initiatives, NEA has expanded this model to different states.

In addition, NEA partnered with BetterLesson created a website that focuses on effective ways to teach the Common Core State Standards. The site allows teachers to collaborate while offering over 3,000 lessons that any teacher can put into his or her curriculum. “We’re trying to expand and grow these initiatives across the country,” Pringle said.

Later in the discussion, she added: “We have got to figure this out together,” saying associations and businesses should not operate in “silos.” Rather, they should each contribute in their own way “to do what’s right and best for our kids.”

For many years, NACME has guided students of color toward careers in engineering. Since 1974, NACME has awarded over $124 million in scholarships and program support — in turn helping over 24,000 minority students pursue engineering degrees. NACME also doesn’t wait until high school to spark students’ interest. Instead, “we start in middle school to introduce kids to engineering,” Dr. McPhail said.

Christine Scullion of NAM brought up the “perception problem.” In 2011, over 70 percent of Americans viewed manufacturing as an integral part of society while only 30 percent wanted their children to go into the field.

NAM has been trying to change that viewpoint. After identifying skills that employers need, Scullion said NAM traveled to schools across the country so that educators would endorse those skills.

“We need to break down the walls and let them know of the exciting opportunities in manufacturing after high school,” she said.

Another contributing factor to the skills gap is the high cost associated with higher education. Many students do not attend college simply because they cannot afford it. Everyone deserves the opportunity to attend college, Pringle said, and suggested that everyone join NEA’s “Degrees, Not Debt” campaign.

“It’s unacceptable,” Pringle said of the rising costs of college and the amount of debt students owe. “…We need to do something about that.”