In just over a decade our entire world has been transformed by smartphones, social media networks, robotics, home AI systems, medical advancements, and more. Astonishingly, this pace of development is on track to keep going. One of the prime drivers of this advancement has always been the intelligence,  creativity, and drive of humans who are formally educated in science, math, engineering, and technology (STEM). But what happens if education isn’t available for promising students with a passion for these fields? The United States may be about to find out.

This is what a STEM teacher shortage looks like

Research from the Education Commission of the States is showing that schools in the lower-income areas of the United States, where higher numbers of students qualify for the free and reduced lunch program, have a disadvantage when it comes to math, science, and computer science education. It turns out that in these schools students don’t have the same numbers of staff teaching math, have lowered access to computer science, and aren’t able to offer students the opportunity to do hands-on science activities at least once a week. In these same schools, students in fourth-grade classrooms have less access to science labs and materials.

Impacts on future students

Elementary, middle, and high school are typically the times when students are able to experiment with educational topics. Once these subjects catch a student’s attention, the right teacher can fan their flames of interest and develop learning in this area. However, fewer STEM educators and lowered access to hands-on educational opportunities in low-income schools make this less likely to happen for less prosperous students. They may lose their chance to become the next groundbreaking physicist like Marie Curie and Albert Einstein, or the next computer science pioneer like Ada Lovelace. Their lives are changed and they’re losing out on the chance to grow into the person they could have been.

Effects on U.S. prosperity and the ability to meet challenges

Lack of access for all students to K-12 STEM education isn’t just detrimental to student lives in the affected schools, it is a risk for the future of U.S. innovation and prosperity. As the pace of change gains speed across the globe, countries are competing to bring new technologies to market. This race for development is intense and competition is cutthroat. That’s because not only do the new products and services improve lives, they ultimately provide an economic boost to the individuals, countries, and companies they came from. In this extremely competitive race, it makes sense to allow for the possibility that a win could come from anywhere. Unfortunately, as the situation stands currently if that talent is in a lower-income school their contribution may never have a chance to blossom.

The lack of STEM education also puts at risk the country’s ability to react to future challenges including climate change, changes or shortages to the food supply, and chronic diseases like cancer, heart disease, and dementia. These challenges are real and current research shows that humans are already needing to meet them. The most effective response will come from scientific fields like multiple disciplines of biology, agriculture, computer science, and the earth sciences. If today’s students are educated enough to be able to understand what is happening, they will be in a prime position to help determine how to respond.

Some reasons behind the shortage

With the quality of student education and so much of U.S. and global future at stake,  teachers, parents, administrators, education experts, and funders are grappling with the causes behind this shortage. At the top of the list of causes is a lack of funding. A dearth in resources can affect the teaching experience in a number of ways. Teachers may lack lab supplies and other tools they need or they may lack the funding to be able to take students out of the school on hands-on field trips.

STEM teachers in schools with struggling programs may also find that they’re looking for daily cultural support that simply isn’t there. They may not feel support from their principal for STEM programs in younger grades, or there may not be a culture of STEM-focused classes and after-school activities.

Possible solutions

There are a few ideas on ways to ease the issues connected to the current teacher shortage at lower-income schools. Not surprisingly, most solutions start by developing funds to provide more STEM staffing, supplies, and classes  Such funding could come from the district, area corporations, or private supporters.

There are also plenty of ideas on ways to strengthen STEM culture in schools. Continuing to talk about the importance of STEM education, both in school district offices and in communities at large, is a good first step. Additionally, some experts propose mentoring programs where more experienced teachers from other schools are paired with newer STEM teachers for support and guidance. A third suggestion is for private partners in STEM-related industries to provide experts willing to talk directly in classrooms, offer free access to offsite labs and other facilities, or offer mentoring programs and internships. Internship programs would be especially valuable to advanced students or high schoolers who are considering pursuing STEM classes in college.

While these solutions provide a start to addressing the issue, there’s still more work to be done. Ultimately, strengthing K-12 education provides benefits not just to students but to the United States as a whole and to people everywhere. Let’s hope that the conversation about how to better implement STEM education will ultimately bear fruit and make a difference in schools.