STEM education is the hot topic in academia these days, especially with so much focus on the unemployment rate and the “jobs of the 21st century.” Job experts and educators tout the benefits of earning a degree in science, technology, engineering or mathematics, especially drawing focus to the growing role of technology in virtually every aspect of life. But according to a report about a new study released by Microsoft, only a fraction of US high schools offer advanced computer courses—and that fraction is rapidly diminishing.
Consider this: there are over 42,000 public and private high schools in the United States, but currently only 2,100 of these schools offer Advanced Placement coursework (and subsequent AP exams) in computer science. That’s a reduction of 25 percent in just the last five years. And in the vast majority of schools that do offer computer science, these courses do not count toward graduation, with only nine states permitting computer-science studies to satisfy core science or mathematics requirements.
Experts project that in the next year alone, 120,000 jobs will be created that will require a degree in computer science. And as Brad Smith, a Microsoft executive, pointed out at a recent panel discussion, approximately 3.7 million jobs in STEM-related fields are currently unfilled, due largely to a shortage of qualified workers. Getting the US workforce trained and ready for these job opportunities has to start now, and according to Smith, it has to start in high schools.
"If you think for a moment about some of the people who have remade our world, people like Bill Gates oror … what did they all have in common?" Smith asked the panel at the Brookings Institute. "They each learned computer science before they graduated from high school. They were the fortunate few."
One huge obstacle to getting computer sciences into the curriculum of our nation’s high schools is the shortage of qualified teachers. College graduates with computer-science degrees are a hot commodity in the job market, and tech companies are quick to snap them up. And there is no question that the starting salaries in private industry far exceed teachers’ salaries.
"One of the fundamental things we need to do is rethink the way that we recruit, retain and compensate teachers to be able to deal with this changing labor market," said a representative from the American Enterprise Institute.
One recommendation is for businesses and school districts to work cooperatively to develop skilled teachers to train students. Toward that end, the Microsoft Technology Education and Literacy in School program is training tech professionals as part-time computer science teachers in high schools. In addition, Microsoft has pledged to invest $500 million over the next three years to expand STEM education, with a special focus on computer-science education.
As for those 41 states that do not consider computer science a part of the core math or science curriculum, Microsoft’s Smith can only shake his head.
"It will get you just as close to graduation as it will if you take woodworking," Smith told the panel. "I love wood, but it is not the future of our economy."