Science and math education are key to our future

Throughout the election season, we heard a lot about ensuring that everyone in this country has economic opportunities and a shot at the “American Dream.” As we search for answers to high unemployment and wage stagnation, many worry that not enough jobs are being created, that too many people are competing for the same positions so there must not be enough positions. But, there’s another side to the story.

Change the Equation, a nonprofit organization mobilizing the business community to improve education, published “STEM Help Wanted,” a report that analyzes online job postings and unemployment data in the past three years. The report finds that job postings related to STEM (an acronym for science, technology, engineering and math) education have outnumbered interested but unemployed people by almost a two-to-one ratio, a skills gap that is particularly pronounced in healthcare, where there are 3.2 jobs requiring STEM education per interested, unemployed person.

In response to increasing demands from industry and academia, new fields are being developed at UC San Francisco like global health, translational medicine and bioengineering. High-demand academic fields lead to high-wage jobs. The American Dream has changed, but it’s still alive. College degrees are not enough today to ensure upward mobility in today’s competitive marketplace. But we know that students’ degrees in the hard sciences will yield more job opportunities. According to Face the Facts, STEM-related occupations pay almost $35,000 more annually than average American wages.

As an executive at UCSF, I worry constantly about finding enough talent to fill the critical science and engineering positions that will push our students and organization forward. Innovations in healthcare, energy and other industries are only possible with a strong talent pipeline well-prepared in the STEM subjects.

The demand for scientists and engineers is too great for the privileged alone. It’s important that people from all backgrounds have access to STEM education subjects and, later on, to scientific fields that are leading to an increasing number of jobs in our economy. Last year, UCSF came together with educational partners and the Chevron Corp. to create the Bay Area Science Festival to raise awareness of STEM education’s importance and bring science to everyone in the Bay Area. This festival gives families free access to a host of science activities and events. As one example, families with students in the Oakland Unified School District took advantage of shuttle service to the Chabot Science Center on Saturday, Oct. 27, at no cost. Early projections show that more than 55,000 residents will have participated in Bay Area Science Festival events this year. This is the type of movement we need across the country.

There are other welcome signs of collaboration in the Bay Area to increase access to STEM education and fields in hard sciences. San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee is teaming up with Richard Carranza to develop a public-private STEM initiative in San Francisco. The Society for the Advancement of Chicano and Native American Scientists recently opened up a chapter at UCSF. and Chevron are working with public schools in Alameda and Contra Costa Counties to fund STEM-related classroom projects through Fuel Your School, a program that funds classroom projects that teachers post on based on where residents purchase gas.

Awareness of STEM’s importance is increasing and programs to improve STEM education are expanding, but we need to continue this momentum to ensure all students have a shot to be tomorrow’s engineers, doctors and innovators. Our economy, and the American Dream, depends on it.

Joe Castro, PhD, is vice chancellor for Student Academic Affairs at UCSF