By Sumana Gadiraju, Anita Osuri, and Fadi Farag, 2022 Governor's STEM Scholars
While New Jersey is undeniably a global leader in innovation, a closer look beyond this success shows that our education system can be doing more to support the success of all New Jersey students in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), paving a path to a stronger innovation economy.
New Jersey is consistently ranked first nationally for its public schools, but inequity in educational outcomes is rampant, and STEM is no exception. Our state’s achievement gap between wealthy and low-income students has remained wide open for several decades. Millburn–the state's wealthiest school district–reports an impressive 95.3% of their students achieving proficiency on math and reading state exams. Meanwhile, in Camden, with nearly one-fifth of the average household income of Millburn, proficiency drops to 1.5%. This means that even though you may live in the state with the best school system, your zip code may be the largest indicator of success.
So what accounts for this massive disparity? Turns out, there are a few factors. According to education policy expert Clifford Adelman, as of 2006, more than 70 percent of high school seniors of higher socioeconomic status take high-level math classes like calculus, while less than half of their lower socioeconomic counterparts are enrolled in the same classes. Another startling statistic: out of New Jersey students who take a high school Advanced Placement (AP) computer science class, less than a quarter were female and only 12% were from minority groups - those considered non-White and non-Asian. This means that students from communities that are underrepresented in STEM are already at a significant disadvantage before they even leave high school. The fact that there is such a significant difference in the levels of STEM engagement within schools is disturbing, as research shows that exposure to STEM subjects in school (starting as early as elementary school) can strongly influence students' trajectories into STEM professions. Yet, we have no accountability for these considerable gaps in our educational system.
While schools are undoubtedly major players, they are only part of the problem. After the school bell rings, some students head out to private SAT classes, private tutoring sessions, or STEM out-of-school learning opportunities like Kumon. But many others simply don’t have the access to or means to afford these experiences. Extracurricular activities are also a major source of learning 21st-century skills like problem-solving, critical thinking, and global perspectives. Summer break is a particularly long gap in the school year when some students partake in such diverse learning experiences, while others lose several months of learning and fall behind their peers. In New Jersey, there is a scarcity of free or government-funded extracurricular STEM programs that allow all students to gain valuable experiences that will supplement their school learning.
It is pretty evident that a lot of these issues are the results of a lack of funding and support for equitable STEM education initiatives, so naturally, a major part of the solution will involve directing funding toward such programs. How should this money be directed? First, we need to focus on allocating money to school districts to ensure that STEM education is more equitable, specifically funding communities that trail in STEM education outcomes. Outside of school, third-party STEM educators should be incentivized to consider the benefits of no- or low-cost STEM programs that are equitable and accessible to all students. Finally, we must urge legislators to develop more policies that address the systemic issues like economic inequality that make it impossible for all students to be on a level playing field. And there’s no better time than now, during New Jersey STEM Month, to get involved and contact your local officials to make your voice heard and push to make STEM education equality a reality.
Equitable funding of STEM education will result in a diverse generation of innovative thinkers who will drive future discovery. With STEM being an inherent part of the fabric of New Jersey’s innovation economy, the lack of a skilled STEM workforce will inevitably result in significant repercussions. In fact, several studies have shown that a shortage of STEM skills in various sectors has already resulted in massive monetary deficits to companies. Thus, investing in STEM education and providing all students the resources to explore their passions will ultimately lead to a better economy and a stronger workforce.
For years, New Jersey has been at the center of STEM innovation and discovery. In order to maintain this level of achievement in the future, we must strive for growth and improvement of higher quality STEM learning experiences, so that every single student is prepared to become a STEM leader.
-- Sumana Gadiraju is a third-year undergraduate student majoring in biology at Rutgers University Camden and a resident of Glen Rock in Bergen County. She is an advocate for improving STEM education outcomes in under-resourced communities.
Anita Osuri is a senior at Biotechnology High School and a Marlboro, Monmouth County, resident. She is passionate about STEM education and healthcare equity.
Fadi Farag is a junior at Steinert High School from Hamilton Township in Mercer County who is passionate about cybersecurity and computer science.