In the US, jobs in the fields of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) have a supply and demand problem. Due to an array of trends, including the creation of new types of jobs that require STEM skills and lower graduation rates for STEM degrees, there are currently too many jobs and not enough qualified candidates to fill them.
This issue was the crux of the last two reports on the state of STEM education from the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), published in 2018 and 2012. As both reports acknowledge, the solution isn't as simple as just getting more college students to stick with majors in STEM—though that does certainly help.
From elementary and secondary school through higher education and vocational training, students in STEM need support all along the way. They need access to more trained educators, educational content that is engaging and hands-on, and pathways to discover a diversity of STEM-related job paths so they can see a clear future for themselves.
"There has to be a continuum of efforts. We've seen it break down otherwise," says Katie Kavanagh, director of the Institute for STEM Education and a professor of mathematics at Clarkson University.
Renowned for its STEM degree programs, Clarkson launched the Institute for STEM Education in 2016 across the Potsdam, Schenectady, and Beacon campuses as a way to conduct educational outreach, curricular and educational research, teacher professional development, and pre-service training, and to explore the ways those efforts can work together. In step with the PCAST reports, the institute is addressing the entire ecosystem of STEM education in an effort to alleviate the jobs crisis across New York State.
As the demand for STEM professionals continues to grow, in 2019 Clarkson was granted more than $1 million through the National Science Foundation to help address New York State's STEM teacher shortage. The funding is helping 20 undergraduates commit to becoming science and math teachers in typically underserved schools in rural and urban areas. "Some students might realize in their sophomore year that they don't want to be an engineer. They want to teach engineering. We're trying to develop those pathways to expand what students are able to do," says Kavanagh.
Since 2004, Clarkson has also received funding from the New York State Department of Education Science and Technology Entry Program (STEP) to support 180 students annually in grades 7-12 with academic enrichment and research experience programs. As part of STEP, Clarkson's IMPETUS (Integrated Math and Physics for Entry to Undergraduate STEM) for Career Success program engages students with hands-on activities like computer programming game challenges, original research projects, opportunities to interact with college mentors and licensed STEM professionals, and even designing and analyzing a model roller coaster.
This school year, the IMPETUS program was extended to the Mid-Hudson Valley when Clarkson's Beacon Institute began coordinating virtual campus visits and STEM enrichment for students in the Beacon City School District. As part of its mission, the Beacon Institute leverages a natural laboratory for learning—the Hudson River—to help learners of all ages explore estuary ecology and issues of plastic pollution, marine debris, and surface runoff, as well as study species that are invasive to the Dennings Point park ecosystem.
Upon completion of Clarkson's Beatrice G. Donofrio Environmental Education Complex on Dennings Point, the Beacon Institute will be able to amplify STEM programs and potentially establish a Center for STEM Education to further promote these career pathways within the greater Beacon community.
"We see environmental science as a pathway to all STEM majors and careers," says Asher Pacht, the Beacon Institute's director of environmental programs. "No matter what the program is, the deeper issue is ensuring that students can envision themselves as people who will go to college and pursue a career in STEM. For first generation students who are trying to blaze a trail, they're gaining exposure to a whole new world of possibilities."