The Importance of STEM Education
The demand for STEM talent in Oklahoma is growing. Between 2017 and 2027, Oklahoma jobs in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields are expected to grow by 8%, but Oklahoma business leaders currently cannot find the STEM talent they need to stay competitive. One reason for the lack of talent is Oklahoma students’ relatively poor performance in K-12 math and science. These struggles with STEM subjects don’t end in high school. Oklahoma loses STEM talent at every level of the education system. The following paragraphs look at how Oklahoma students have performed in STEM subjects over time, how Oklahoma compares to the rest of the nation, and possible next steps for increasing Oklahoma’s STEM talent pool.
STEM in Grades K-12
For Oklahoma students, the struggle with STEM skills starts early. The table below shows the percentage of students scoring proficient and above on the 2018 Oklahoma School Testing Program (OSTP) math and science exams in grades three through eight.
|Subject||Grade||% Scoring Proficient and Above|
The percentages in the table above help illustrate why Oklahoma students need access to better STEM learning opportunities in order to be prepared for college and career. In 2015, 53% of Oklahoma’s fourth-graders spent less than three hours per week learning science, which according to the National Research Council, is not enough time for students to engage in sustained science investigations. Without the proper allotment of time for STEM learning in grades K-12, students aren’t prepared for STEM learning at the next level.
In 2018, 42% of Oklahoma high school graduates indicated having an interest in STEM majors and/or careers, compared to 45% nationally. In fact, mechanical engineering was the fifth most commonly indicated college major of interest for 2018 Oklahoma graduates. Unfortunately, having an interest in STEM does not equate to performing well in STEM. In 2018, the percentage of Oklahoma ACT-tested high school graduates meeting ACT College Readiness Benchmarks in math and science was below the national average, and only 10% of 2018 Oklahoma high school graduates met the ACT STEM Benchmark, compared to 20% nationwide. According to ACT, Inc., students who meet or surpass the ACT STEM Benchmark have a 75% probability of earning a grade of C or higher in first-year college STEM courses, and “they are also more likely to earn good grades, persist in a college STEM major, and earn a STEM-related bachelor’s degree than those who didn’t meet the benchmark.”
Post-Secondary STEM Education
During the 2016-17 school year, the top 10 most popular fields of study, measured by enrollment, in Oklahoma’s public institutions of higher education included engineering (5), biological sciences (6), and computer and informational sciences (9). Despite the interest in STEM, Oklahoma students are not graduating with degrees in STEM fields. In 2014-2015, only 27% of certificates and degrees in Oklahoma were in STEM fields.
How Oklahoma Can Better Prepare Students for STEM Jobs
Before Oklahoma can better prepare students for STEM jobs, the state needs to better prepare them for each level of education. First, Oklahoma needs to close the race and gender achievement gaps in STEM subjects. In 2015, underrepresented minorities received only 11% of degrees and certificates in engineering in Oklahoma, while women of all races received 394 engineering degrees and certificates compared to 1,568 for men. Oklahoma could dramatically increase the available talent in STEM just by closing the race and gender gaps in STEM subjects.
One possible next step is to prioritize STEM in our existing education programs. This begins with fully funding concurrent enrollment for high school students who take a STEM course through a college, university or CareerTech and expanding access to STEM Advanced Placement (AP) classes statewide so lack of funding is not a barrier. Another possible next step is to incentivize students to pursue STEM degrees and certificates in Oklahoma’s Promise program. Oklahoma’s Promise program pays for all or part of a student’s tuition at an Oklahoma college, university or CareerTech. If Oklahoma wants to properly prepare its students for the STEM jobs of the future, it should provide enhanced scholarships for students in Oklahoma’s Promise who pursue a degree or certificate in the increasingly vital STEM sector.