We must invest in a well-educated STEM workforce

We must invest in a well-educated STEM workforce
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Today’s STEM students are tomorrow’s researchers, scientists, doctors, astronauts and engineers, as well as the teachers who will prepare future generations to follow in their footsteps. They will face tremendous challenges, which in turn present the possibility of doing amazing things that can transform the world as we know it. They will be tasked with preserving our natural resources, advancing technology, curing diseases and protecting our citizens. That is why it is so important that we attract and nurture these future change-makers by getting children hooked on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) at an early age.

If we invest in a highly skilled, well-educated STEM workforce, not only will our nation become more globally competitive, but individuals will also be able to enjoy more rewarding, prosperous lives. In 2015, the average wage for all STEM occupations was $85,570, nearly double the average of all other occupations combined, according to the Department of Labor. It is anticipated that the demand for STEM workers will grow by 14 percent between 2010 and 2020. Unfortunately, data show that 3 million of those jobs will go unfilled if we continue on our current path. We clearly need more software experts and chemists, math teachers and lab technicians.

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There are three STEM magnet middle schools located in Nevada’s 1st District (Las Vegas), including Hyde Park Middle School, where students have won our Congressional App Challenge every year. There are also seven STEM/STEAM focused elementary schools, which provide exposure to the nexus of the arts and sciences for students in kindergarten through fifth grade. Sustained early exposure is very important because research shows by the time students reach fourth grade, one-third of boys and girls have lost interest in science; by eighth grade, half deem it irrelevant to their future plans.

The numbers are even worse when one looks specifically at minority students, who have fewer opportunities to study the STEM fields. Only 28 percent of high schools with high black and Latino student enrollment offer physics, compared to 67 percent of high schools with low enrollment of their demographics. Likewise, only 33 percent of such schools offer calculus, compared to 56 percent, and only 27 percent of black and Latino students take AP classes. This is reflected in the STEM workforce. Blacks and Hispanics make up around 28 percent of the overall workforce but only account for 12.5 percent of STEM careers nationwide, according to the Department of Education. 

We as a society cannot afford such a drop-off and corresponding loss of brain power in these fields. That’s why I am sponsoring legislation to create a National Science Foundation grant program, to give at-risk K-12 students the tools they need to improve their STEM education. The bill will increase federal investment for low-income and minority students studying STEM at colleges and universities by offering students loan forgiveness grants. It will also provide assistance to minority-serving institutions in the development of STEM programs that reach out to those demographics. The program will be paid for by increasing the H-1B visa fee, which companies pay to bring highly skilled foreign workers to the United States. Rather than importing STEM workers, we should be “growing” our own.

I submitted this bill in 2015 and am still waiting for Republicans to act. What’s disheartening is that our students and our nation cannot afford to wait. It’s time we level the playing field and offer incentives for more students to enter these exciting and rewarding fields. By not acting, Congress is depriving our young people of great opportunities while failing to prepare our country for the future. 

Titus is a member of the STEM Education Caucus.