May 25, 2024
At a Crossroads: Kamau Bobb on STEM Education and the Future of Business

Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education has always been the bedrock of the United States global leadership in technology and innovation. In response to the Russian launch of Sputnik in 1957, President Kennedy explicitly called the nation to action with a challenge to put a man on the moon. Since then, the case has been solidified that a strong tech workforce relies on a strong national STEM education system. The current state of public education in the country should give the business community pause.

According to the Nation’s Report Card, during the COVID-19 pandemic American students’ have lost decades worth of learning gains, and continue to regress. The basic decay of fundamental skills in literacy and numeracy do not bode well for the future of the American enterprise, especially in the tech sector. Just as millions of students need to be reengaged, and their skills calibrated to a new AI enabled world, the public education system in the country is crumbling.

Teachers who have borne the burden of educating, consoling and holding the hands of nearly fifty million students are now cracking under the pressure. Teachers from coast to coast are striking for living wages, smaller class sizes and ultimately for acknowledgement of the professionalism of their craft. The enrollment in teacher prep programs across the country has fallen 30% in the last decade. Several districts are chronically understaffed.

The intrusion of politics into education has led to states passing laws to constrain intellectual inquiry, banning books and firing teachers for exposing students to the fullness of American life and history. The pernicious commitment to gun culture in the country has made schools a frontier for mass shootings. Platitudes about education being the great equalizer cannot hide the current reality. As parents and just observant adults, we can all see what is happening. Save cherubic commitment to the future of young people, there is hardly a rational incentive for talented young people with options to become teachers in this chapter of the American story.

So where does this leave the business community?

There is a reasonable boundary between the private sector and the world of public education. That boundary has led to years of private sector commitments to ancillary things. Now, the core of the educational structure needs help. The provision of computers, or AI enabled ed tech tools will not solve the greater structural challenge. Yes, there are normative questions about whether or not private-for-profit companies should have any influence in the public sector enterprise of education. But when states use public sector incentives to lure private sector interests, the door is opened. Now, in a time of crisis, the business community has an opportunity to responsibly engage to help restore public education. This is a commitment that is necessary “not because it is easy,” as President Kennedy said, “but because it is hard.”

About Kamau Bobb, PhD
Kamau Bobb is Google’s Director of STEM Education Strategy, and the founding Senior Director of the Constellations Center for Equity in Computing at Georgia Tech. He is an engineer and science and technology policy scholar whose work focuses on the relationship between equity in the STEM enterprise, large educational systems, and the structural conditions that influence contemporary American life.