Given the right STEM education and opportunities, future founders can accomplish global good.
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Today, innovators and designers solve challenges that require new paradigms, processes and/or inventions for which there are no blueprints. As pioneers, they bear the risk of ruin from failure, while pursuing the lofty goal of changing the world.
Pioneers make progress possible, but in America, STEM education (science, tech, engineering and math) needs plenty of improvement. In 2015, 15-year-olds across the country ranked 38th in math and 24th in science out of 71 developed countries, according to Pew Research.
China, India, Russia and other developing countries are winning the race to produce future scientists, Nobel Prize winners and manufacturing supervisors. Small businesses create two-thirds of net new jobs. Therefore, entrepreneurship and STEM programs are important to America’s prosperity.
There are initiatives across America to grow innovation through curricula designed for students in elementary and high school. More importantly, there’s growing interest in entrepreneurship among kids. There’s a reason ABC’s Shark Tank, now in its 11th season, remains one of the most popular shows on primetime television.
Alex Hodara, who was recognized by Forbes‘ 30 Under 30, combines the sciences with entrepreneurship education. Rocket Club, an award-winning after-school program in New York City, teaches 7-to-14-year-olds about robotics, coding and founding a venture. His students actually learn how to start a business by creating things like proposals, contracts and invoices.
Execution, as all practitioners well know, is a key virtue of the sciences and small business. Entrepreneurs are forced to learn by doing, not rely on theory or impractical ideas. Students earn a currency called “Rocket Fuel,” which they can use to hire other classmates or get prizes.
Moreover, students with promising ideas obtain real money from the club to start their businesses. Rocket Club is already at full capacity until September of this year, and with good reason — enrollees meet with entrepreneurs and engineers from organizations like NASA, Red Bull and Estée Lauder.
America’s educational landscape could use a big boost. In 2016, U.S. colleges produced 568,000 STEM graduates, according to World Economic Forum. China dwarfed that number at 4.7 million. In fact, 40 percent of all Chinese graduates received a STEM degree. India graduated 2.6 million STEM students in 2016, as well.
In order to see different results, it’s the process that needs changing. Funded by Elon Musk, one extremely selective program is breaking free from traditional learning. The Ad Astra School, located inside SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif., lets students choose their subjects. Students opt out of topics they don’t enjoy, work in teams and analyze real-world issues like artificial intelligence, nuclear policies and geopolitics in North Korea.
You’d think these were college-aged adults, but they’re actually kids between the ages of 7 and 14. Enrollees learn software programming and other technical skills, but they aren’t given a letter grade — ever.
After-school programs like Rocket Club and Ad Astra are paving the way for young minds to accomplish greatness by teaching and gamifying entrepreneurship, engineering, networking and other professional skills that aren’t emphasized in the traditional school system.
Today’s youth have more tools than ever to embrace practical, science-based learning, but America needs to reverse a few disturbing trends. STEM has key implications in the global economy, and unfortunately, U.S. manufacturing has seen a steep decline since the late 1990s.
In 1997, manufacturing accounted for 16 percent of U.S. gross domestic product; 20 years later that figure had dropped to 11.6 percent, according to World Bank. These are high-paying jobs that were lost to China, India and other countries. On average, with manufacturing jobs paying 12 percent more than other American jobs, that’s a problem.
Admirably, entrepreneurial pioneers go through daunting obstacles to get what’s needed. This kind of resiliency should be applauded — not seen as something insurmountable.
Innovative curricula make a difference by giving young talent the kind of exposure they need to develop and flourish. An imaginative mind should be encouraged to pursue what’s possible, even if there are no blueprints for soon-to-be solutions.