Peter Balyta: 'We must act; STEM skills are survival skills for students today'

In Peter Balyta’s unique role as president of Education Technology and vice president of academic engagements and corporate citizenship, he interacts with students and educators at all levels. In this “Inspire STEM” series, he addresses the challenges facing science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education in the U.S. – and talks about ways each of us can and must help bring STEM to life for the next generation of innovators.

Peter Balyta and students at a KIPP school in DallasI’m on a quest of sorts – and I’d like you to consider joining me. It involves education; it involves our economy. It involves the next generation of innovators and their ability to advance technology and continue to move our world forward.

I’m on a quest – to change those things that are within my power to change – to help bring STEM subjects to life in learning environments and to open students’ eyes to the potential of careers in electrical and computer engineering.

The power of vision

“You can’t be what you can’t see.” I couldn’t agree more with this quote from Sally Ride, the first American woman in space. I want to help students today to see what their future can be. As business people, as educators, as leaders, as parents – as a concerned community – let’s make it our objective to help students picture careers in STEM. My goal is to not only help them see electrical and computer engineering, but envision – and embark upon – paths for themselves that lead them to become engineers.

And even for students who don’t choose technical careers, STEM skills are survival skills for kids today, and an incomplete understanding of STEM is an incomplete understanding of the world.

Why STEM matters: By the numbers

The case for action is clear. The number of U.S. jobs in STEM is growing about three times faster (depending on which statistic you cite) than non-STEM jobs, with a projected 9 million STEM jobs needing to be filled by 2022.[i]

Meanwhile, with 18 percent of bachelor’s degrees being conferred in STEM subjects, we are not projected to graduate enough STEM professionals to meet the demand.[ii] And student interest in STEM professions has remained relatively flat since 2000, though there has been some modest growth in recent years, with a 1 percent increase in student interest in STEM careers between 2013 and 2015.[iii]

The growth in student interest is hardly an accident. For more than a decade, U.S. businesses – including our company – as well as non-profits, community groups, concerned parents and civic leaders across the country, have collectively invested hundreds of millions of dollars and countless hours to help improve and advance STEM education.

The sad truth is, we’re not yet getting a great return on our investment.

High-stakes and multi-faceted

Peter Balyta at KIPP school in DallasThe problem of insufficient STEM education is high-stakes. I’m not one to overstate things, but there are very real connections between our ability as a country to train up the next generation in STEM and our ability to stay vital and vibrant in the future.

The problem is also multi-faceted. To hone in on just one underlying issue – and one that confronts university educators and students on a daily basis – the majority of students entering college in the U.S. are not ready for college-level math or science.

Less than half of high school graduates are ready for college-level math and less than a third are ready for college-level science, according to the ACT's 2016 Condition of College & Career Readiness report.[iv] And even among students who perform well in math on their SATs or ACTs, they often haven’t learned how to apply math to real-world situations.

Math matters. Not just for students who will pursue careers in STEM, but for students interested in obtaining a college education. Studies show that students who completed Algebra 2 in high school are twice as likely to finish a bachelor’s degree than those who did not.[v] As I mentioned before, for students, an incomplete understanding of STEM is an incomplete understanding of the world.

The roadblocks

From the perspective of a student today, the path to becoming STEM-savvy can be precarious – marked by a number of potential roadblocks that can begin as early as kindergarten. These barriers include grouping kids by ability; limited availability of relevant and rigorous curriculum materials; lack of ongoing, high-quality teacher professional development; and an underlying problem to all of these – the math fear factor.

The courage to do what we can

In the coming weeks and months, I will write about some of these roadblocks and how some educators – often with the support of local businesses or community members – are working to overcome them.

Ultimately, I believe the best approach we can take is to focus on changing those things that are within our power to change. At TI, we are doing this every day, in many different ways. From volunteerism to funding for robotics competitions; from mentorship to curriculum development and investing in interactive learning environments, we focus on inspiring STEM understanding in ways that are meaningful, fun and relevant.

If we can connect STEM understanding to things that matter in the lives of students, they will learn to love it. And if we infuse the learning experience with hands-on, interactive experiences that teach STEM concepts in ways that are intuitive, easy to grasp, and that help kids understand the world around them, then STEM will come to life. That’s the spark we need to ignite. That’s the flame we need to fuel.

I’m on a quest to change STEM education in the U.S. Won’t you join me? Check out STEM education programs and resources from our company. Teachers, parents, mentors, supporters: here’s how to get involved. Students, discover your path to engineering.

Passionate about STEM? Share your thoughts in the comments.

[i] Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Quarterly, STEM 101: Intro to tomorrow’s jobs

[ii] – Maltese, A. and Tai, R., Pipeline persistence: Examining the Association of Educational Experiences With Earned Degrees in STEM Among U.S. Students,” Science Education volume 95, issue 5

[iii] Change the Equation Stemtistics

[iv] ACT: The Condition of College and Career Readiness 2016

[v] Change the Equation