Why Immediate Support for STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics – Is Critical

Astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson '93 (B.S. chemistry), a veteran of both the Space Shuttle and International Space Station missions, is living proof that the study of mathematics and science can lead to successful careers in space and beyond. Dyson, who received a Cal State Fullerton honorary doctorate in 2008, embodies the very essence of study in the STEM disciplines – science, technology, engineering and math.

Today, engineering student Johnny Bernal '12  is at the leading edge of students in the STEM disciplines now studying for careers – continuing Cal State Fullerton's long tradition of success in the STEM fields.

It's critical that more young people study STEM, because since the 1960s there has been a steady drop in U.S. students majoring in these disciplines. America's failure to attract and retain students in these fields, the strengthening of the talent pool overseas, and a number of global economic factors have contributed to the weakening of our country's once-powerful role in research and development.

Cal State Fullerton's $19.6- million STEM Initiative is a vital part of the solution to this dilemma, employing a unique, two-pronged approach that combines both teacher-preparation and higher education components.

In 2011, Bernal spent his third summer interning at Boeing's Long Beach headquarters as a C17 application programmer. After obtaining his first internship through the CSUF Career Fair, he started in the summer between his freshman and sophomore years and hasn't looked back.

"On the job, I'm working on a team with people twice as old as I am," Bernal said. "I learn through others, gain technical knowledge, rub shoulders with people in upper management. I'm proactive about seeking knowledge – I've learned to bring my A-game to the table in everything I do."

More students must seek the same path, university leaders agree, because there aren't enough like Bernal. The National Science Board confirms this, noting "a troubling decline in the number of U.S. citizens who are training to become scientists and engineers, whereas the number of jobs requiring science and engineering training continues to grow."

In fact, the U.S. ranks 20th in the proportion of its college-age population that earns first university degrees in the natural sciences, according to "Rising Above the Gathering Storm," a report by the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine. "It is clear," the report said, "that an inadequate supply of scientists and engineers can be highly detrimental to the nation's well-being."

Without re-establishing America's ascendance in the STEM fields, our ability to research, problem-solve and innovate is severely threatened. This innovation fuels our economic vitality – and even helps ensure our national security.

"We all benefit from investment in STEM," said Claire Cavallaro, dean of the College of Education. "This is what drives our economy. Young people must be prepared to work in these fields, both here and abroad.

"We've always been the innovators – the ones to come up with the big ideas," she added. "Young people need to think creatively to innovate in science and engineering."

In California alone, the state has only about 50 percent of the workers it needs with the scientific and technological backgrounds to serve the industries that depend on those disciplines, noted Robert A. Koch, acting dean of the College of Natural Science and Mathematics. "One example," Koch said, "is that Los Angeles is a hub for medical devices technology – but we don't turn out enough students to fill all those jobs."

Firms require ready-to-work graduates to fill the positions, agreed Susamma Barua, associate dean of the College of Engineering and Computer Science. "That's what industry wants – the kind of employees who can get started from the very first day."

One of the many issues holding students back from studying the STEM fields is their reluctance to tackle rigorous mathematics courses, Barua said. That's the reason for the university initiative's emphasis on K-12 preparation, she said, so that students are calculus-ready by the time they enter the university.

In addition to the shortage of math majors, there are significantly fewer well-prepared, well-qualified math teachers in the K-12 grades, said Paul DeLand, professor and past chair of the Mathematics Department. "We hope that the initiative will help us recruit more students, and we're hopeful that we will continue to generate single-subject credential teachers in math," DeLand said.

At the same time that the need has increased for STEM graduates, students' fundamental skills in basic math and science have eroded during the past 30 years, noted Tim Woodington '81, '98 (B.S. physics, M.S. environmental studies), who teaches part-time in CSUF's Physics Department. "With all our dependence on technology, it's all the more important that we have people competent in STEM," said Woodington, who also is program manager for Northrop-Grumman Electronic Systems.

Companies like Boeing are investing heavily in scholarships and financial aid to attract and retain students in STEM undergraduate and graduate programs, said Mona Simpson, '87 (B.S. engineering-mechanical engineering).

Simpson, Boeing's director of operational excellence-site services, noted that the company has provided $25 million nationwide toward STEM programs in the past year.

Attention to the STEM disciplines benefits Boeing as well as the broader business community, Simpson said. "We have very sophisticated products, and we're always looking for talented people to help us maintain our strength," she added.

"We're at a point in our history when the U.S. Census says that we have more diversity than ever," said Mark Ellis, chair and associate professor of secondary education. "It's the perfect time to invest in education to tap the talent and potential for new ideas. If we don't fund STEM initiatives now, we will miss the opportunity to move our country along. We'll lose out and fall farther behind."

Many of the students he teaches are the first in their families to attend college, noted Mike Loverude, professor of physics and CATALYST director. "To go on and get a degree in science or math is really impressive," Loverude said. "They may not have had a lot of opportunities – and the STEM initiative is a great way to support them."

The U.S. should be putting more money in STEM at the federal, state and local levels, said Nilay Patel, assistant professor of biological science. "Money in STEM is an investment in our future.

"Change should happen at the elementary, middle, high school and college levels," he added. "These are the students who are going into the workforce in the next few years."

Binod Tiwari, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, agreed. "These kids are the future of the nation," Tiwari said. "And STEM education is the pillar of nation-building. Our ancestors did a great job in building the nation – now we need to maintain it." end of story