Science, mathematics, engineering, and technology are cultural achievements that reflect people’s humanity, power the economy, and constitute fundamental aspects of our lives as citizens, workers, consumers, and parents. As a previous NRC committee found:4
The primary driver of the future economy and concomitant creation of jobs will be innovation, largely derived from advances in science and engineering…. 4 percent of the nation’s workforce is composed of scientists and engineers; this group disproportionately creates jobs for the other 96 percent.
An increasing number of jobs at all levels—not just for professional scientists—require knowledge of STEM.5 In addition, individual and societal decisions increasingly require some understanding of STEM, from comprehending medical diagnoses to evaluating competing claims about the environment to managing daily activities with a wide variety of computer-based applications.
Several reports have linked K-12 STEM education to continued scientific leadership and economic growth in the United States.6 At the same time, there are many reasons to be concerned about the state of STEM learning in the United States in the face of research that suggests that many students are not prepared for the demands of today’s economy and the economy of the future. For example, as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, roughly 75 percent of U.S. 8th graders are not proficient in mathematics when they complete 8th grade.7 Moreover, there are significant gaps in achievement between student population groups: the black/white, Hispanic/white, and high-poverty/low-poverty gaps are often close to 1 standard deviation in size.8 A gap of this size means that the average student in the underserved groups of black, Hispanic, or low-income students performs roughly at the 20th percentile rather than the 50th percentile. U.S. students also lag behind the highest performing nations on international assessments: for example, only 10 percent of U.S. 8th graders met the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study advanced international benchmark in science, compared with 32 percent in Singapore and 25 percent in China.9
Employers in many industries lament that job applicants lack the needed mathematics, computer, and problem-solving skills to succeed,10 and international students fill an increasing portion of elite STEM positions in the United States. Indeed, in 2007, “international students constituted more than a third of the students in U.S. science and engineering graduate schools,” and more than 70 percent of those students currently remain in the United States after earning their degrees.11 However, an increasing number of foreign students are finding viable career options in their home countries. This is particularly true for China and India, which, in December 2009, provided 47 percent of the approximately 248,000 foreign science and engineering students in the United States,12 thereby limiting the talent pool available to U.S. employers.