We need to engage more kids in STEM, especially those without wealthy parents, education advocates say

By Andrew Zwicker and Laura Overdeck

March in New Jersey is STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) Month, a time to celebrate progress in both our history and our ongoing work to foster our “Innovation Economy.” The reason to celebrate is clear: the Bloomberg U.S. Innovation Index consistently ranks New Jersey in its top five, and for good reason.

Between 2017 and 2027, the number of STEM jobs in New Jersey will grow 9 percent and STEM workers earn about 26 percent more than their non-STEM counterparts. While these data points indicate there is vast opportunity within STEM in New Jersey, it’s also important to acknowledge our STEM student achievement lags. Let’s look at the realities behind this and propose some bolder solutions.

We’ve all heard the statistics on our lackluster national performance in math relative to other developed countries. The shortfall is painfully obvious for underrepresented populations. We can trace this to pervasive forces in all three buckets of a child’s day: school, after-school programs and home environment. The real opportunity is to use the time outside school to reinforce what happens in the classrooms. Of the 8,800 hours children live in a year, they spend about 1,200 in school and about 5,000 waking hours outside of school. That time out of school is a powerful lever to reinforce what kids learn in school and to secure their place in the STEM pipeline.

Tackling this problem will take an “economy of scale” where the successful STEM programs are rapidly expanded to connect with a much larger group of students. For example, the New Jersey STEM Pathways Network is serving as a convener for hundreds of STEM community leaders by identifying bright spots of success in education and workforce development initiatives and then scaling these initiatives so that learning outcomes improve for all. Currently, there are four thriving STEM Learning Ecosystems in New Jersey under the STEM Network: Delran, Newark, Liberty in Hudson County, and South Jersey in Camden, Cumberland and Salem Counties.

Another example is at Princeton University where, every year for the last 18, the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory has brought nearly 800 middle school and high school girls together from all backgrounds to meet and network with successful female scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs. The demand for this program is enormous and limited only by the available space.

The home environment is also an undeniable influence. People rightfully fret over the correlation of SAT scores with wealth, and attribute it to rich families’ ability to buy test prep. This shows a real misunderstanding of the forces at work. There’s a 260-point gap between the lowest and highest income brackets, while test prep programs boost scores about 30 points on average. That remaining 230-point gap is due to 16 years of living entirely different childhoods. It includes factors such as eating breakfast, the number of books a child has access to, and how a child spends his or her summer. Over the summer, wealthy kids are traveling abroad, visiting museums and gaining knowledge, while low-income kids lose between three and six months of learning.

Until we give low-income parents the resources, childcare and other support they need, we will never close this gap. Thankfully, there are opportunities to increase awareness of and access to low-cost resources that can stoke achievement. Online content like Khan Academy’s vast library of videos enables children to catch up on topics they haven’t yet mastered in school. Then, there’s the Bedtime Math app, which serves up a playful short story for parents to read to their kids followed by math riddles. University of Chicago researchers have found that this dual numeracy/literacy activity gives students an extra three months of math skills in just one school year.

We encourage more stakeholders to engage in student STEM learning outcomes, and to be a part of your local ecosystem. Whether it’s businesses partnering with non-profits to fund more quality STEM learning programs, K-12 schools providing more STEM teacher professional development opportunities, or parents taking advantage of weekend STEM learning opportunities for their children, it’s going to take the entire community to make sure our future workforce is ready, willing, and able.

It’s time to stop pretending we’re serious about attracting math and science talent from among underrepresented groups, and actually go do it. We have to tackle these difficult, pervasive challenges head-on – and one doesn’t have to be a math whiz to see why.

Andrew Zwicker is a physicist and science educator chairman at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. He also represents the 16th Legislative District. Laura Overdeck is the founder of Bedtime Math app and chairwoman of the Overdeck Family Foundation.


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