House subcommittee panel seeks solutions to closing STEM skills gap

STEM Education Coalition Executive Director James Brown often hears from concerned stakeholders, including grandparents who know statistics about STEM jobs and want schools to prepare students for 21st century careers.

“I will get a call from a grandparent who will read to me over the phone the highest paying college majors: petroleum engineering, systems engineering, actuarial science, chemical engineering, computer science and engineering, and nuclear engineering,” he said. “They get it; they’ve done their homework. They get the fact that STEM skills are important, not just to their children and their grandchildren, but to the society in general.”

They also understand the irony, he said, that “83 percent of millennials sleep with their smartphones, but only 16 percent of high school graduates have an interest in pursuing careers in science and technology.”

Brown was hoping to convey the public’s vexation with K-12 STEM education when he told this story as part of his testimony at a July 26 hearing before the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology Subcommittee on Research and Technology.

Code.org estimates that over 500,000 computing jobs go unfilled each year in the U.S., which magnifies an issue that stakeholders call the skills gap.

Rep. Barbara Comstock, R-Va., who chairs the subcommittee, said the solution to closing the skills gap and filling the computing skills pipeline may be a combination of public and private sector investments, as well as early exposure to the subject of computer science.

Comstock acknowledged “great examples” of companies in the private sector that seek to close the workforce gaps by providing grants to school systems or by working with local high schools to help students earn cybersecurity certificates “so kids can start working right out of high school,” for instance.

The nonprofit sector is doing its part, she said, through initiatives such as Girls Who Code — a summer program that exposes girls to computer science and related fields, Comstock added.

Yet a “repeated concern” she gets from employers in the districts she represents is the need for employable individuals with the appropriate education, training, and knowledge of cybersecurity matters, she said.

Rep. Daniel Lipinski, D-Ill., also lamented that he regularly hears from employers who say that demands for talent exceed the current supply.

‘Core foundational concepts’

Committee Chairman Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, said it is critical to know “what is taking place outside of the federal government so we can be sure we’re not spending taxpayer dollars on duplicative programs,” before turning to the experts on the matter.

Pat Yongpradit, CEO of Code.org — which is known for its Hour of Code — is a former computer science teacher in Maryland who left the teaching profession just four years ago.

He told lawmakers that a handful of states have dedicated funding for computer science, and many computer science teachers, like himself, lack curriculum direction from the state, which forces them to “constantly craft resources” on their own.

“The challenge is in creating enough computer science teachers, [and] creating policies that will install and sustain high-quality computer science experiences for all students,” he said.

Yongpradit advocated for federal policies that promote and expand “the core foundational concepts in this field … so that students who are in kindergarten now, who are excited about computer science, aren’t ill-prepared for when they are 22 and they enter the workforce.”

ESSA plans

Brown cited positive trends occurring in the K-12 sector, starting with the fact that 17 of the 25 states that have released plans aligning to the Every Student Succeeds Act, Pub. L. No. 114-95, have added science to their accountability systems. A similar number of states proposed career and technical education indicators as well as measures of AP coursework in STEM subjects, he said.

What’s more, about a quarter of states intend to use federal resources under Title II, Part A and Title IV, Part A to improve teacher quality, hire STEM educators, invest in training programs for in-service educators, and promote STEM education competitions and other learning opportunities.

“However, there’s a catch,” he told the subcommittee panel. “The Trump administration’s budget bills that have been moving through the House appropriations committee, have been sending, what I’ll say, mixed signals about whether those programs will exist or what the funding levels will be for those programs.”

“There is a strong bipartisan tradition [in Congress] of supporting STEM education as a policy priority,” he added. “What I would love to say to the next grandparent that calls us up and asks for help in this subject is that the federal government has got their back on this issue.”

Emily Ann Brown covers education technology and STEM education issues for LRP Publications.

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