What St. Charles County Has Done to Create a Culture of STEM Education

By Dustin McKissen

In case you haven’t heard, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education is incredibly important to maintaining America’s historical role as the world’s biggest and most innovative economy.

Oh, wait…you have probably heard that.

In fact, we’ve all heard that.

But hearing something and doing something are two very different things. Despite the widespread acknowledgement that STEM education is important, recent research shows the United States is still lagging. According to a report by the PEW Research Center, results from the most recent PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) tests show the United States scoring 38th in math and 24th in science. Given that 71 countries participate in the exam, the results mean that America failed to enter even the top 33% in either subject.

And it isn’t just a matter of the rest of the world getting smarter. Those rankings were based on 2015 exams. Results from the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test conducted by Department of Education, also showed average math scores for 4th and 8th graders falling for the first time since 1990.

Those lackluster test scores have caught the attention of the federal government, and the Trump Administration has proposed $200 million in STEM-focused grant funding. However, when the total federal budget is roughly $4 trillion, that grant funding looks a little less like an adequate response to a crisis.

In other words, you can put away your calculators. We’ve done the math for you, and $200 million represents .00005% of a $4 trillion budget.

Of course, inadequate attention to STEM education isn’t new. The United States has been falling behind on math and science test scores for decades–and waiting for help from the federal government is almost always a bad idea, no matter who is in office.

That’s why one community has taken action at the local level.

For the last 15 years, Partners for Progress, a group of private and public-sector leaders here in St. Charles County have invested a significant amount of time and money to create a culture of STEM education in the area’s school districts. Those efforts have included:

  • Holding an annual award ceremony recognizing outstanding STEM students from area high schools.
  • Conducting STEM camps.
  • Sponsoring Lego robotics clubs.
  • Purchasing and distributing Micro:bits–a small programmable computer originally developed in the United Kingdom–to every 7th grader enrolled in the county’s public schools.

Talking about the importance of STEM education and improving STEM education are two different things. Put bluntly, though STEM education has been talked to death, the United States educational system continues to fall further and further behind.

If America wants that to change–that is, if the idea of answering to Chinese robot overlords gives us pause–then we must invest real money and real effort.

One good place to start would be following the lead of St. Charles County, where we have made creating a culture of STEM education a priority.

(This post originally appeared on Inc.com under a different title.)