Getting kids into science and math is vital for our economy

Stickers with icons of science and technology embedded in letters of the alphabet. Posters of kids with beakers and stethoscopes. Decks of cards with numbers in the shape of solar panels or a double helix .A music video by Boston-born artist Tezz Yancey . What does that have to do with the future of the Massachusetts economy? Plenty, it turns out.

Massachusetts has frequently patted itself on the back for leading the nation in test scores. State officials’ decision to adopt federal Common Core Standards was met with much unwarranted chest thumping and hyperventilating because of concerns we’d be watering down our standards. Our self-satisfaction may not be justified however. A recent Harvard University study reported by James Vaznis in the Boston Globe notes that, while nationally Massachusetts has the nation’s highest math skills, we lag behind countries in Europe and elsewhere. And that’s bad news on the economic front.

The study says our percentage of graduating high school students with advanced math skills are less than half the rate of peer students in Taiwan, Hong Kong and South Korea. That’s particularly problematic given the high representation in the state’s economy of high tech, bio-tech, health care and other science-related work. One problem is the need to pay higher salaries to recruit highly qualified teachers in math and science.

Another problem is the challenge of interesting young students to go into science, technology, engineering and math (the so-called STEM subjects.) Enter Joyce Plotkin.

Plotkin, the former head of the Mass. Software and Internet Council (now called the Mass. Technology Leadership Council) has founded The DIGITS Project to whet students’ appetites for STEM subjects as early as the sixth grade. While the average level of interest nationally in those subjects is 33 percent, she says, only 28 percent of Massachusetts sixth graders express that interest. Compare that to 38 percent in North Carolina. Plus, she says, kids who are high performers on MCAS, often suburban, want to go into finance and other professions—not engineering. Low MCAS performers (in poorer school systems) are more interested in engineering, for example, but lack the skills to get from here to there.

This can be turned around, and Plotkin is intent on doing just that. Working with  a coalition of five Massachusetts science and technology associations representing over 1500 companies  and 300,000 people who work in software, Internet, telecommunications, biotechnology, medical devices, engineering and clean energy, they created DIGITS. With the pro-bono creative support of Arnold Advertising, they have developed graphics, workshops, games, a music video and website to make these studies fun. Representatives from industry sectors visit classrooms. The idea is to make science, technology, engineering and math learning fun. Wish someone had done that for me when I was in the sixth grade!

Evaluation of the one-year results is, said an independent evaluator, “statistically significant.” That means that kids have an increased understanding of why math is important, the kinds of careers that would be open to them and what they have to do to get there.

The state and the MA Technology Leadership Council provided two years of funding for DIGITS, but the third year of the grant disappeared in the state’s budget crisis. Now it’s up to Plotkin to raise some $325,000. She is a third of the way there, thanks to The MathWorks, Analog Devices, Verizon, Cisco, PTC and IBM. But she’s looking for more money and for volunteers to be STEM ambassadors to classrooms across the state. The project is all about making it cool to do math, science, engineering and technology. And it would really be cool for all of us to have DIGITS succeed.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

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