Blogs  |  3.4.2024

Improving the STEM Workforce Pipeline

Lance Bush, Ph.D., President & Chief Executive Officer

Last month, Kris Brown, NASA’s Deputy Associate Administrator for STEM Education, and I discussed the importance of diversity and student identity in STEM. This month, we are taking a look at how we can overcome the challenges of improving STEM workforce development by engaging students as young as pre-kindergarten in STEM. But first, I want to provide some perspective on the challenges we are facing.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 10 million U.S. workers in STEM occupations in 2021. They projected that the STEM workforce would grow by nearly 11% by 2031, which is more than twice as fast as for all occupations.

We need a strong STEM workforce to fill the jobs we already know are critical and the ones we can’t even imagine yet. STEM job opportunities are plentiful—but there’s a problem.

Research has suggested that about half of our students lose interest in STEM by the age of 12. That means we lose half of our potential STEM pipeline before most students reach high school. And now we’re seeing that we won’t be able to change that dynamic if we don’t have interventions as early as 7 and 8 years old. This challenge is even more pronounced in girls and minority students.

Challenges in STEM Workforce Development

Kris, inspiring students early and keeping them engaged is important for both of our organizations. From your perspective and experience, what challenges does our country face regarding the STEM pipeline? 

Recent reports continue to articulate the challenges across our nation’s education ecosystem and highlight the critical need for STEM literacy in the United States. The challenges our nation has faced in STEM education and enabling STEM pathways toward building the future STEM workforce were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. There is evidence that the current domestic supply of STEM workers is insufficient to meet our nation’s future workforce needs. Estimates suggest that the U.S. will need approximately 1 million more STEM professionals than it’s on track to produce in the coming decade.  

Additionally, women and other minority groups are disproportionally underrepresented in STEM fields. We need to shift the demographics of the STEM workforce to better reflect the population of our nation that we serve.

Inclusive and Flexible STEM Engagement

Okay, we can see the scope of the problem and it’s big. But we’re space people, accustomed to taking on grand challenges. What do you view as the best ways to engage kids in STEM? 

At NASA, we have placed more intense focus on K-12 and how we can help attract students to STEM and bolster our efforts in broadening student participation. We strive to offer flexible learning opportunities that can be deployed in classrooms as well as informal educational settings, and resources available for educators to use.

Ultimately, the best way for us to engage kids in STEM is to help them experience the power of STEM firsthand through learning by doing. There are many opportunities available for kids including online learning, STEM-based content designed for clubs and after-school programs, and in-person and virtual experiences offered by educational organizations, museums, and institutions across the country, like Challenger Center.

The more kids experience a diverse set of learning endeavors, the more likely they will develop an affinity to STEM and move toward a STEM identity. It is important for all of us in the STEM education ecosystem to design our opportunities specifically to broaden student participation.

Knowing that we want (and need) to reach more students, and knowing that there are so many underserved students out there, how can we better reach those underserved learners?

To better attract and engage underserved students, we are incorporating culturally relevant practices in the development of learning opportunities and products from NASA.

While we all have the power to reach students virtually through platforms and networks online, we also need to focus on how to better reach underserved and underrepresented students, especially those in rural and socioeconomically disadvantaged areas. One way we do this is through investments via cooperative agreements with museums, science centers, and informal education institutions across the country. Doing so creates learning opportunities that leverage exciting work in STEM to engage students through networks of institutions specifically devoted to reaching underserved and underrepresented students.

Unique STEM Learning Opportunities

For those of us in the STEM education sphere, this is an easy one, but for those who are not as involved: What is the value of programs like NASA STEM Engagement and Challenger Center? 

In NASA STEM Engagement, we are focused on delivering unique learning opportunities for students that spark interest and provide connections to NASA’s mission and work, and engaging students in authentic learning experiences with NASA’s people and content. What distinguishes our work (and Challenger Center’s work as well), is that tie to our mission and work in space. I believe the value of our programs is multi-faceted:

  1. We leverage our exciting and path-finding work in science and exploration in designing and delivering unique mission-driven learning activities and products to attract students to STEM.
  2. We are focused on how to provide more equitable access to these experiences for students—providing value to a more broad and diverse set of young people.
  3. We strive to effectively weave these experiences into the fabric of a student’s holistic learning landscape and be impactful.

Ultimately, the value of our programs can be measured by the number of students who are attracted to STEM as a result of these learning experiences, and those who progress along STEM pathways. We’ve taken steps to longitudinally measure that progress, and I’m thrilled with how we’re using evaluation and evidence to improve design of our learning opportunities to increase value and impact.

Both Challenger Center and NASA share common goals and approaches to sparking an interest in STEM among students of all ages. What do you think is unique about the approaches taken by our organizations?

Our approaches are unique because we include STEM superstars as part of the equation in reaching and engaging students. What works well is providing access to these people doing exciting things and reaching for the stars in their work, to engage with students and help them envision themselves in STEM. We have a unique capacity to inspire and engage through that lens.

Whenever I get the chance, I issue a challenge to colleagues across our NASA community, including our partners in industry and academia, to get out there and engage with students. Young people all across our country have a curiosity and interest in NASA and there is a strong affinity to the NASA brand. I love seeing young people out there wearing NASA gear. Our work has the potential to transform that interest and curiosity into action—a vivid picture of young people seeing themselves in STEM.

Investing In Our Future

Another great conversation with Kris, illuminating the challenges (and solutions), we face in STEM. NASA and Challenger Center build upon the spirit of exploring space for humanity, ensuring that we are focused on that benefit for our young people.

Gone are the days when we view the STEM workforce pipeline as something that starts with students in high school. We need to invest in STEM education from cradle to career, reaching students starting in elementary school, both inside and outside of their classrooms. From that first exposure to STEM—as early as possible—we must commit to repeating engagement throughout all levels of their education. We must inspire them to learn more, take STEM classes, try STEM camps, and investigate STEM internships. Continuing to invest in programs and experiences that inspire and allow students to understand all that is possible in the STEM industry is vital to our future.

Stay tuned to the Challenger Center Blog! In the last of our three-part series next month, Kris and I will discuss how we, as educators, can better engage students in STEM.