TFA Talks 'Crisis' in STEM Education

As its fifth and final application deadline nears, Teach for America is pushing for applicants from the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields—a group of disciplines known collectively as STEM.

On Thursday night, a little more than a week before its Feb. 15 deadline, Teach for America executives assembled a group of STEM undergraduates from Harvard and other colleges in the Northeast and spoke to them about the current “crisis” in the American education system—namely, the poor quality of math and science education.

“If we don’t have a workforce skilled in math and science, the country and the economy will be in trouble,” Executive Director of TFA in Massachusetts Josh Biber told the crowd.

According to a projection from a recent Georgetown study, the number of STEM jobs in the U.S. will grow to eight million by 2018.

But, as Biber was quick to point out, the American education system may be failing to meet the demand for skilled workers.

Biber discussed his experience teaching in Phoenix and his shock at discovering that his 10-year-old students had never taken a science class. He said that he took it upon himself to introduce his students to science.

“Despite myself and my perceived disinterest in all things science, I said, ‘Someone has to teach them science,’” Biber said.

Cambridge Mayor Henrietta Davis also spoke at the event, stressing that improving math and science education was a priority in Cambridge as well as the rest of the nation.

“We’re not that different from any place else in the country,” Davis said. “We have the most privileged children—children of Nobel Prize winners—but we also have the poorest children—children of immigrants.”

According to Melissa Moritz, an MIT graduate and the Head of TFA’s STEM Initiative, school districts continue to ask for more STEM teachers. But despite the high demand, teachers from the quantitative fields are in particularly low supply.

“STEM teachers are the hardest to recruit because they have so many options right after graduation,” Moritz said.

Of Teach for America’s 10,000 corps members, one-third teach math and science at the secondary level. Another third teach math and science at the elementary level.

The bio-tech firm Amgen hosted the event at its research and development site in Kendall Square. Every year since 2006, Amgen has funded 100 fellowships to TFA STEM teachers, who receive signing bonuses as well as funds to buy classroom supplies.

Davis urged the undergraduates present to pursue teaching careers in STEM fields, adding that Cambridge and the rest of country had much work to do in improving STEM education.

“You’re the answer to the dreams of no less than the White House,” Davis said to the audience.

—Staff writer Sonali Y. Salgado can be reached at ssalgado@college.harvard.edu. Follow her on Twitter @SonaliSalgado16.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

CORRECTION: Feb. 13, 2013

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that bio-tech firm Amgen has funded 100 fellowships to TFA STEM teachers in the past seven years. In fact, Amgen has funded 100 of these fellowships in each year since 2006.

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