Awareness of the need to stay competitive in a global marketplace—and for the emerging workforce to find careers in growth industries—means a rising focus on STEM education for young people. This emphasis goes as high as the office of President Obama, who launched the “Educate to Innovate” campaign in 2009 to motivate young people to excel in the STEM fields and to encourage the growth of STEM literacy, seeing it as vital to meet the “grand challenges” facing the country and the world. And the need for STEM education is documentably acute. Code.org predicts 1,000,000 more jobs than students in computer science by 2020, yet many K-‐12 schools offer no programming opportunities at all.
STEM diversity challenges
One of the main challenges, also noted in President Obama’s initiative, is the encouragement of young women, minorities, and people from low-‐income backgrounds to explore STEM subjects and careers. Disparate levels of STEM achievement exist at many important levels of education, and the higher the education, the greater the gaps. The National Science Foundation reports that while women’s representation in STEM careers is increasing, they still constitute only 18% of bachelor’s degrees in computer science and 19% in engineering; they are also underrepresented in those professions, making up only 13% of engineers and 25% of professionals in computer and mathematical sciences. African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans/Alaska Natives constitute 13% of the engineering degree holders in 2011, despite their proportion of the overall population being over 26%; computer science sees similar underrepresentation.
Libraries and STEM Learning
Early involvement in STEM activities therefore offers an opportunity for girls and underrepresented minorities to develop their interest, and extracurricular programming allows young people the chance to explore and play, make mistakes and learn, outside of the confines of the classroom and graded work. Such early exposure frames STEM work as a field to which they can be contributors and participants, not merely consumers. Libraries have considerable untapped potential as venues for cultivation of STEM learning and exploration, and their role is ripe for valuable expansion.