In the popular movie “The Martian,” astronaut Mark Watney’s remarkable scientific knowledge and ingenuity allow him to survive alone on the inhospitable, dusty Red Planet until he can be rescued.

While fictional, the story is inspiring – and it illustrates the power of science, technology, engineering and math education.

Do I expect the kids of today to grow up to be space travelers? A few, certainly. But more importantly, I expect all of California’s 6.3 million K-12 students to eventually finish school and compete for jobs and careers in a dynamic modern economy driven by those skills and disciplines.

Today, STEM education is more important than ever, and that’s why I have made it a central part of my efforts to transform California’s public education system and better prepare students for college and careers in the 21st century.

Participation in STEM college majors and jobs, however, has not reflected California’s rich diversity. Women and certain ethnic groups, including Latinos and African Americans, are still significantly underrepresented. That is not acceptable, and I am working hard to change that.

One way is with the California STEM Symposium, hosted by the California Department of Education, Californians Dedicated to Education Foundation and the California Commission on the Status of Women and Girls. The third annual edition, held at the Anaheim Convention Center last week, brought together more than 3,000 educators, students, experts and members of the public to consider how to enhance and expand STEM education.

More than 300 different workshops were offered on a wide range of topics, such as how to teach robotics to elementary school students, how to write creatively and accurately about science subjects, how to link classrooms to business and industry, and how to make STEM more appealing to girls and other underrepresented groups.

In my own visits to schools, I have seen how pioneering programs that use hands-on learning and bring in other disciplines, such as the arts, can motivate students who previously never had an interest in the sciences.

These are exciting times for California education. We are implementing more rigorous academic standards for English language arts, math and science. The goal of these new standards is to teach children to solve problems, think analytically, be creative, learn from mistakes and work collaboratively in teams.

California’s economic prosperity has long been fueled by its creativity and cutting-edge technologies. It’s imperative that our education system keep up and prepare students for careers that have not yet even been invented.

I hope no Californian is ever stranded on Mars. I do hope, however, that more California kids discover a passion for science and learn the resourcefulness and perseverance it takes to solve problems that are just as difficult as returning from Mars.

Tom Torlakson is state superintendent of public instruction.
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