WHEN THREE FEMALE African-American mathematicians—Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson—became unsung heroes at NASA during the 1960s space race, the US was engaged in a fierce competition to become the world leader in science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM. As told in the recently released movie Hidden Figures, the trio’s groundbreaking calculations for rocket trajectories required programming a complex, first-of-a-kind IBM computer that helped put astronaut John Glenn in orbit. Skip ahead 54 years, and the US is a world leader in scientific innovation and advanced technologies.
But in order for the US to remain at the forefront of innovation and not lag behind, we must address the disconnect between the skills required for 21st century jobs and young people’s ability to acquire those skills. Fixing this will require us to evolve our approach to public education and training. The latest results of the PISA exam, which assesses science, math, and reading performance among 15-year-olds around the globe, show American students noticeably behind in math scores (below the international average), with science and reading scores remaining flat. This is not a small problem.