STEM Education

A Smart Investment in STEM  Education

By  | Published March 07, 2013 | Fox News  Latino

When NASA introduced Dr. Franklin Chang-Díaz as the nation’s first Latino  astronaut, I was a senior in high school, listening to the news on a transistor  radio and forever affected by the breakthrough. It was then I knew I wanted to  be –and could be– an astronaut.

Years earlier, my family –all of us– often spent seven days a week as migrant  workers. After a long day of working the fields, my father would ask us kids how  we felt. We were all exhausted and muddied. “Good,” he would say. “This is  your future if you don’t study in school.”

When I look back, it was my father’s warning that helped me focus in school,  and it was the wonderful news of Dr. Franklin Chang-Diaz that helped me realize  how far I could go. The combination of the two led me to become, like  Chang-Diaz, a NASA astronaut.

Few would say my path was easy, but there’s a challenge for us today in how  we inspire more students to explore fields in science, technology, engineering  and mathematics (STEM). Just four percent of the bachelor’s degrees earned in  2008 in the U.S. were in engineering. In Asia, that number was 19 percent, and  in China it was 31 percent.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize we are trailing the rest of  world when it comes to developing STEM talent, a true barrier for any nation  wanting to remain globally competitive. The problem is exacerbated by recent  cuts in education, a side effect of the recent recession. Twenty-six states are  providing less per-student funding during the current school year, and education  spending in 35 states is below 2008 levels, according to the Center on Budget  and Policy Priorities.

While the cuts this year are mostly modest, they are in addition to much  steeper cuts that occurred from the past few years. California per-student  spending has decreased by more than 17 percent since 2008, with just five states –Arizona, Alabama, Oklahoma, Idaho and South Carolina– curtailing spending by  more.

Budget realities and our inability to produce enough students trained in  science, technology and engineering (STEM) fields have created a perfect storm  that threatens our STEM education pipeline and, with it, the nation’s ability to  be globally competitive. If there was a handy solution, virtually every state  would have it in place by now.

I am encouraged knowing that leaders on both sides of the aisle recognize the  importance of investing in the education of our nation’s students, and perhaps  it is fitting that one of the most promising solutions to bolstering the  nation’s STEM education pipeline comes from a bipartisan group of U.S.  Senators.

Senators Orrin Hatch (R-UT), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Marco Rubio (R-FL) and  Chris Coons (D-DE) introduced the Immigration Innovation Act of 2013, a high  tech immigration reform bill that makes needed reforms in the skilled labor  sector.The bill, dubbed I-Squared, uses fees from companies who pay for H-1B  visas and green cards to fill vacant high-skill jobs to establish a national  fund to help states fund improvements to STEM education.

With tax dollars shrinking and many states struggling to restore the cuts to  education, this funding stream is crucial especially in communities where STEM  education is lagging. STEM has more than a funding problem – it also has a  demographic problem. African-Americans, Latinos and American Indians are  collectively 26 percent of the working population in the United States,  collectively accounting for just nine percent of the workers in science and  engineering fields and just 11 percent of graduates with science or engineering  degrees.

The National Center for Technological Literacy sums up the challenge: “Without increasing the numbers of minorities in engineering and technology as  the percentage of white males in the workforce decreases, the number of  engineers will also decrease.” Our task is clear. We have to do a lot more to  ensure more students are exposed to STEM instruction. It’s one of the reasons  educators and education officials should be paying attention to the I-Squared  Act.

The STEM fund will be used to recruit and train more teachers in STEM fields,  broaden access to computer science classes for high-school and help students who  start college in STEM fields earn their degrees. Our long-term economic  prospects will depend on how effective we are at producing the workers who will  be the innovators of tomorrow. I am thrilled that there’s a promising path to  meet that challenge. We can’t miss this opportunity. Too many futures, including  America’s, are riding on it.

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