America’s STEM Teacher Crisis

America has one of the lowest percentages of graduating STEM majors in the developed world, and few of these graduates go on to be primary or secondary school teachers. Black American and Latino students are less likely to study STEM disciplines, and their classrooms are less likely to include materials such as health education products or a female reproductive system model labeled with definitions. However, STEM education should not start in high school: just like reading, it needs to be built into early childhood learning.

Only 16% of college graduates in the United States have a degree in a STEM field, and few of those graduates go on to teach science or mathematics in primary or secondary schools. The issue is particularly severe in minority-majority schools or in low-income areas. According to Melissa Mortiz, vice president of the National Math and Science Initiative, up to 33% of districts that primarily serve black American and Latino students don’t offer Algebra II or chemistry, which are prerequisites to college-level STEM courses.

The issue in this instance is twofold. Ninety percent of school districts that serve predominantly black American and Latino students struggle to find qualified STEM teachers. They have an even greater challenge finding science and math teachers from their own community, meaning that teachers are more likely to be whiteand to come from different communities. Students who do not learn STEM disciplines in high school won’t go on to study them (much less teach them) later, and the lack of diversity among STEM instructors reinforces the notion that science and math fields are “not for them.”

However, school districts that try to force advanced science and mathematics on their older students will probably be met with considerable push back. Rather than forcing teens into STEM fields in the interest of improving test scores or graduation rates alone, experts agree that STEM education should be integrated into all other forms of education and play. It also needs to start as soon as children are born.

Nearly two thirds of all children are visual learners, and in the first few years of life they learn a lot through experimentation and play. Parent Melanie Pinola writes that many turn STEM into a “love it or leave it” subject, forgetting that we use science and mathematics everyday. Children who speak Spanish at home can learn about their own bodies by looking at a female reproductive system model labeled both in English and Spanish, or they can play games with their parents where they name the muscles in Spanish. Parents can demonstrate fractions with partially drunk glasses and a meal portion plate, which can relate back to a child’s interests in music or poetry.

Ultimately, science and STEM fields in general are about experimentation, exploration, observation, and critical thinking. Even if you don’t have access to a male reproductive system activity or a female reproductive system model labeled with all of the parts, early childhood education should include free play and experimentation with the world around us.