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October 2, 2023

The population of China is four times that of the US, yet it is producing eight times the number of STEM graduates and is now poised to become the world’s largest economy by 2040.

This geopolitical dilemma will require a US trifecta. First, we must make continued investments in basic scientific research. Second, we must expand the pipeline of diverse STEM graduates. And third, we must make engineering a requirement for every high school student. This is the national imperative!

A growing number of high school graduates will be first-generation and from minority backgrounds. It is abundantly clear that the nation’s interests are best served by fueling the K-12 pipeline in ways that encourage more high school students from diverse backgrounds to pursue engineering programs.

But how do we inspire these students to reach their North Star? Most students have a basic understanding that engineers “design and build things” but an extremely limited sense of what engineers actually do. Aggravating matters further, many of them are intimidated by math requirements and never even consider the profession for themselves.

An NSF program is growing the STEM pipeline with diverse students

One successful approach to growing the K-12 pipeline is the NSF-sponsored program engineering 4 US all (e4usa)(opens in new tab/window), which teaches engineering principles, skills and the design process to every high school student.

The program, which I lead, attempts to “democratize engineering for every high school student,” in the words of Deputy Division Director Dr Don Millard. Its novel 30-week curriculum requires only high school algebra as a prerequisite and focuses on four major themes: discovering engineering, engineering and society, engineering professional skills, and engineering practice.

No prior knowledge of engineering is required, and any teacher can be trained to deliver this first-of-its-kind engineering course. Students are empowered to create change in their local communities by exposure to problems that are personally meaningful or associated with society’s grand challenges, including sustainability, clean water and human health.

Teaching techniques engage students in the creativity of engineering early in their education. When differences in how students learn are taken into account, research has shown that this has a marked impact on retention. And if universities can retain entering freshmen through completion of their engineering degrees, the number of engineers graduating could increase substantially.

After four years of implementation, e4usa is now in 82 high schools in 21 states, DC and the US Virgin Islands. It has impacted over 5,000 students across the US. The demographics of 2022-2023 cohort is approximately 37% underrepresented minorities and 43% women.

By every measure, this program is growing the pipeline of diverse high school students interested in pursuing STEM degrees. Surveys of the first-year cohort of 82 students resulted in 52 out 82 going into STEM degree programs at either 2-year or 4-year schools. In addition, students can receive credit and placement at 20 colleges and universities around the country.

What attributes might that scientist or engineer of the future possess? They will likely have the ingenuity of Nikola Tesla, the scientific insight of Albert Einstein, the creativity of Maya Angelou, the determination of the Wright brothers, the leadership abilities of Bill Gates, the conscience of Eleanor Roosevelt, and the vision of Dr Martin Luther King Jr.

So let’s make engineering skills a requirement for every high school student! As a nation, our economic competitiveness, military strength, public health and standard of living absolutely depend on it.