CTE’s Role in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.


For the last several years, concern has been brewing about

America’s underinvestment and underperformance in science,

technology, engineering and mathematics–the fields collectively known

as STEM. What is STEM, and why is it drawing so much attention? STEM can

he described as an “initiative for securing America’s

leadership in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields

and identifying promising strategies for strengthening the educational

pipeline that leads to STEM careers.”(1) The elements of STEM are

integral parts of our nation’s critical economic sectors, from

health care to energy, infrastructure and national security.


STEM careers include not only those requiring a research-based

advanced math or science degree, but a broad range of related

occupations in areas as diverse as aquaculture, automotive technology,

accounting and architecture. More careers than ever before require a

deep understanding of STEM principles. Unfortunately, the supply of STEM

talent is not increasing to meet the growing need. Two main factors are

affecting the supply side of the STEM equation. First, the looming

retirement of the baby boom generation will significantly affect the

STEM labor force. The number of current scientists and engineers

retiring will increase rapidly over the next decade. Second, too

few-students are currently choosing to prepare for STEM careers. The

United States is standing still or falling behind in terms of producing

its home-grown STEM talent. At the same time, other nations,

particularly population-rich ones like India and China, are rapidly

increasing the number of STEM professionals that their secondary and

postsecondary education systems produce. (2)


While some of the dearth of STEM professionals can be attributed to

lack of interest, there is growing concern that students are not gaining

the foundational skills necessary to be successful in STEM career areas

even if they choose that path. Low student performance is evidenced on

the U.S. National Assessment of Educational Progress. Math scores for

17-year-olds were significantly unchanged from 2004 to 2008, despite the

fact that students are taking more and higher-level math courses in high

school. (3) In fact, test results showed that 41 percent of those

students did not even have an understanding of moderately complex math

procedures and reasoning, such as finding averages and making decisions

based on graphs.(4)


According to the 2006 Program for International Student Assessment,

American students performed much worse in science and math than students

from other industrialized countries.(5) In addition, scores in the

United States were much more closely correlated to socioeconomic status

than in other countries, and achievement gaps also exist among U.S.

students based on race, ethnicity and gender.

CTE Provides a Solution

CTE has long been a leader in the integration of high-level

academics and technology. For example, CTE courses in agriculture,

nutrition and health care have always contained strong science

components, in many places earning students core academic credits.

During the last decade, however, literally thousands of new

cutting-edge, STEM-intensive CTE programs have been launched or expanded

in schools across the nation. As these programs move to larger-scale

implementation, they have amazing potential to help many additional

students prepare for and pursue careers in STEM areas. CTE programs and

related initiatives provide key advantages in addressing the STEM

challenge and securing America’s leadership in innovation. CTE

programs offer students a deeper understanding of STEM career pathways

in order to facilitate student transitions into these areas, build

interest in STEM and STEM-related careers by making math and science

content more relevant and tangible to students through integration, and

help grow the STEM workforce pipeline by encouraging more students from

underrepresented populations to enter these career fields.

Providing Career Exploration and Pathways

There is a significant challenge in American culture of attracting

students to actively pursue STEM careers. According to a recent survey

about teen attitudes toward STEM, youths’ lack of understanding of

STEM creates a serious obstacle. ”Nearly two-thirds of teens

indicated that they may be discouraged from pursuing a career in STEM

because they do not know anyone who works in these fields (31 percent)

or understand what people in these fields do (28 percent).”(6)

CTE programs, integrated with active career exploration and career

advising, help students understand the breadth of careers that have a

relationship to STEM and the varied pathways that can lead to those

careers. Courses in areas like aviation and aerospace, information

technology, engineering, game design, health care, nanotechnology, and

simulation and robotics expose students to curricula and careers they

may have never even imagined. Embedded in CTE programs are the support

services necessary to help students pursue these rigorous courses and

career opportunities; these include mentors, Career and Technical

Student Organizations, and work-based learning opportunities such as job

shadowing and internships–which connect youth with caring adult role


Adding Relevance Through Integration

While most students have a strong aptitude for learning, their

particular learning styles vary significantly. Many students may have

difficulty grasping mathematical concepts and scientific theories if

they are presented in an abstract manner devoid of clear applications.

CTE courses deliver STEM content in a manner that is far different from

the average academic course. Through the thoughtful integration of STEM

concept, CTE programs can help all students become more STEM literate,

and increase the chances that these students will consider STEM-related

careers. Examples of integration approaches include the

“Math-in-CTE” project carried out by the National Research

Center for GTE; the STEM Transitions Initiative, led by the Center for

Occupational Research and Development and funded by the U.S. Department

of Education; and the Ford Partnership for Advanced Studies (Ford PAS)

curriculum modules, developed by Ford Motor Company Fund. Stale and

local integration efforts are also under way all across the country- GTE

courses demonstrate to students in a vivid way the direct applicability

of STEM concepts in real-world applications, and show that these

knowledge and skills have value in solving interesting and engaging

real-world problems.

Encouraging Students in Underrepresented Populations

If the United States is going to successfully attract the number of

additional students needed to pursue STEM-related careers, all

population groups must be included in this effort even those currently

underrepresented in STEM areas. Females earn significantly fewer

bachelor’s and associate degrees in STEM fields like engineering.

(7) African-American and Latino students, as a group, have significantly

lower achievement levels in math and science and have been declining in

the percentage of degrees earned in STEM fields. (8) These groups are

key to the future of the STEM workforce, and CTE programs across the

country are taking great strides in attracting them to STEM fields. To

help increase the number of women in STEM careers, the Carl D. Perkins

Career and Technical Education Act continues to require that CTE

programs work to recruit students to programs considered

“nontraditional,” and holds them accountable for

students’ participation and completion rates. To encourage

minorities to enter STEM career fields and better prepare these students

to overcome current achievement gaps, CTE programs are expanding into

urban areas and focusing on low-income and minority students. For

example, in the Los Angeles Unified School District, a program funded by

the National Science Foundation has focused on encouraging more students

to enroll in computer technology programs. (9)

Meeting the Challenge

In an always-growing, flattening, global economy, the United States

is facing strong international competition in STEM areas. Fortunately,

schools and colleges in the United States are rising to die challenge by

offering rigorous, relevant CTE programs with content strong in science,

technology, engineering and mathematics. The nation’s economic

leadership, inherently linked to STEM achievement, will not be

maintained without support for critical CTE programs that build student

interest and skills in STEM areas. Through the thoughtful investment in

STEM-intensive CTE programs, America can readily increase its supply of

motivated and prepared students entering STEM-related fields and

strengthen the general STEM literacy of the emerging U.S. workforce.

Since 1997, when Project Lead the Way (PLTW) was launched as an

independent not-for-profit organization with 12 high schools

participating, PLTW’s pre-engineering program has experienced rapid

growth. By 2009, approximately 3,000 middle and high schools were

participating in the effort, with 250,000 students enrolled in PLTW

courses in engineering and biomedical sciences. (10) This is significant

headway in reaching the goal of producing 400,000 scientists and

engineers annually.

At Lake Travis High School (LTHS) in Texas, the PLTW curriculum is

used as part of the Institute of Math, Engineering and Architecture.

LTHS is using an integrated, cohort-based approach to implement PLTW and

help more students explore careers in engineering. Ninth-grade students

begin the program with the PLTW Introduction to Engineering Design

course and continue with the l0th-grade Principles of Engineering

course. During the sophomore year, these students take special,

engineering-focused academic courses that help them sec the relevance of

traditional academics to their future career options.

For juniors, the coursework includes Digital Electronics, a course

focusing on skills in basic electronics; logical thinking; problem

solving and troubleshooting; and four articulated credits are offered at

Austin Community College. Seniors complete the LTHS PLTW program with

more in-depth elective engineering courses, as well as internships,

capstone projects and college connections. Much of the expansion and

integration of the engineering program at Lake Travis has been made

possible by a grant from Siemens Building Technologies. Siemens was

looking for a school district to model and disseminate best practices in

high school engineering programs.

Due to the highly recognized postsecondary engineering programs at

Austin Community College and the University of Texas, Take Travis was

selected to participate. The grant has provided business and industry

externships for academic and CTE teachers, common planning time to

enhance curriculum integration, partnerships that connect students with

the professional STEM community, and prepares them for postsecondary

success across a wide range of career options.


(1) Alliance for Education, “S.T.E.M.,”


(2) Business Roundtable, “Tapping America’s

Potential,” www.tap2015.org/about/TAP_report2.pdf.

(3) Zehr, Mary Ann, “Older Students Less Successful on Math

NAEP,” Education Weekly no. 31 (April 28,2009).

(4) U.S. Deportment of Education, Notional Center for Education

Statistics, The Nation’s Report Card: Long-Term Trend 2008

(Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, April 2009).

(5) Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development,

“PISA 2006: Science Competencies for Tomorrow’s World

Executive Summary,” www.oecd.org/dataoecd/l5/13/39725224.pdf.

(6) Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “Survey: Majority

of U.S. Teens Feel Prepared for Careers in Science, Technology,

Engineering and Mathematics, Yet Many Lack Mentors,” Press Release,

January 7, 2009.

(7) U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education

Statistics, The Condition of Education 2009 (Washington, D.C.: U.S.

Government Printing Office, June 2009).

(8) “Report: STEM Gap Widens for Underrepresented

Minorities,” THE Journal, May 2, 2008,


(9) Cole, Rebecca, “LA. Unified Makes Computer Science

Accessible,” Los Angeles Times, May 21, 2009,


(10) Project Lead the Way, “PLTW at a Glance,”



This article summarizes the Association for Career and Technical

Education’s(ACTE) Issue Brief titled “CTE’s Role in

Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.” it was released

in the summer of 2009 to capitalize on the national attention being paid

to STEM fields and to position ACTE and career and technical education

(CTE) as leaders in improving students’ STEM achievement. ACTE

Issue Briefs are designed to highlight the role of CTE in a broader

issue of national interest. Each Brief is designed to strengthen the

voice of CTE related to the specific issue and to draw more attention to

CTE activities and best practices around the country. The Briefs provide

background information, highlight research, profile CTE programs and

include numerous examples of how CTE is tied to the broader issue. Issue

Briefs are designed in a concise, easy-to-read format that is ideal for

use in advocacy and public awareness efforts with a variety of

audiences. The STEM Brief’s complete text, including case studies

and examples, can be accessed online at


Alisha Hyslop

is ACTE’s assistant director of public policy. She can he

contacted at [email protected]