“I can’t do math.”
It’s a stock phrase that many Americans have heard, or said themselves, on multiple occasions. Admittedly, I have, at times, used those same words to get out of embarrassing bar-tab flubs. Yet over the years, I’ve come to terms with the fact that it's just not that cute and funny.
Hopefully, the younger generations will be spared the option of ever making that excuse.
The White House announced Thursday an initiative to promote learning in math and science. The initiative, called Change the Equation, was created by the CEOs of Xerox, Eastman Kodak, Time Warner Cable, Intel, and Sally Ride Science, with over 100 participating corporate members, including Google Inc., Facebook, Honeywell, Comcast, Chevron, Cisco, Tesla Motors, and more. The initiative has also received funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
“We’re here for a simple reason: Everybody in this room understands that our nation’s success depends on strengthening America’s role as the world’s engine of discovery and innovation,” said President Barack Obama in the afternoon’s remarks. “Our prosperity in a 21st century global marketplace depends on our ability to compete with nations around the world.”
What is the Change the Equation Initiative?
The initiative focuses on STEM subject education -- science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. In 2009, only 34% of U.S. 8th graders were rated proficient in math, and more than one in four scored below the basic level. In an international exam given in 2006, U.S. high school students came in at 21 out of 30 industrialized nations in science, and 25 in math.
Girls are even less likely than boys to have math and science-related academic goals, and the number of women seeking undergraduate degrees in math and science has dropped since the mid-1980s. What's more, the gender disparity in the workforce is even more pronounced: in a recent study conducted by Florida Gulf Coast University on women in the STEM fields, women account for 27% of the total workforce in “all sectors of employment for science and engineering.”
These numbers are troubling to the CEOs that created Change the Equation. Even more troubling is a report on the workforce of 2018 published by the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University. According to the report, too few Americans are completing college to maintain a balanced economy in 2018. In the next ten years, the United States will need 22 million college degrees, but will fall short of that number by at least 3 million. And of the 101 million jobs that will be available in 2018, 8 million will be in the STEM fields.
Sally Ride, the first American woman to go into space and one of the founders of Change the Equation, noted in an interview with the Christian Science Monitor that, “Even to get a basic living-wage job, the students of today are going to need a good education in math and science.”
Changing the numbers
Xerox CEO and Change the Equation co-founder Ursula Burns said in an email: “Companies like Xerox succeed through innovation, collaboration and the fresh ideas of our people. If we inspire young people today, we secure our ability to innovate tomorrow.”
The initiative launches with a hefty budget of $5 million, care of the White House, which is just one slim slice of the $700 million worth of contributions to STEM education since President Obama announced the “Educate to Innovate” campaign last year.
All STEM no arts?
Some, however, are questioning the White House’s apparently exclusive focus on STEM education, especially given the budget cuts incurred by educational institutions across the board, from K-12 to higher education. A January 2010 paper published by the National Humanities Alliance pointed out that “While STEM support is critical, parallel federal and institutional investment in the humanities is desperately needed to ensure continued opportunities to study basic subjects—such as history, literature, writing, foreign languages, philosophy, religion—at all levels of learning.”
As if directly addressing President Obama’s remarks on Thursday, the paper adds: “It is a strategic mistake to turn away from a historic strength of the U.S. educational system at the very moment that other nations around the world are moving in the opposite direction.”
It is no secret that America’s K-12 education is in desperate need of qualified math and science teachers, though higher education is a different ballgame. As someone who received a degree in the humanities (also known as the “junk majors”) - and had to endure the squawks of friends and relatives asking, “What are you gonna do with that?!” - I can attest to the fact that higher education has long been seen as the time when students should be studying something functional and economically sensible - i.e., the STEM fields. The arts and humanities are critically necessary for civic and personal development, and it would be dangerous to extend funding to the STEM fields at the expense of the arts and humanities.
Nonetheless, the initiative bespeaks exciting developments in the K-12 math and science fields in the coming years.
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