STEM Education in the US – The Story of the Three Bears

STEM Education in the US – The Story of the Three Bears

STEM wordcloudScience, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) graduates, and more specifically those going on (or who have gone on) to pursue advanced degrees and later into research-focused careers, represent a significant component of the work of research administrators. Thus, it behooves us to understand the issues around STEM education, gender and racial diversity in STEM fields and among students pursuing STEM careers, and the future job options for STEM graduates and post-graduates.

Much like the story of the three bears, where chairs are too big or too small and porridge too hot or too cold, opinions vary widely with regard to STEM education in the US. Some suggest we are educating US students better than in the past, although most agree that students in the US lag behind STEM knowledge of students in several other countries around the world. Some believe our institutions of higher education are churning out too many STEM PhDs for what the market can bear, whereas others document unmet needs and looming gaps indicating a need for more trained professionals.

US vs. Other Nations

STEM education in the US has gotten lots of attention in recent months. And well it should get attention: according to the Washington Post, scores in math, reading and science for 15 year old US students in 2012 were essentially unchanged from previous periods and, while they scored slightly above average in reading skills, their scores were average in science and below average in math as compared with 64 other countries and economies that participated in the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).

While comparing the current state of STEM knowledge among US students with those of their peers in other countries is an important factor, there are other equally important dimensions to this issue. A 2013 study by the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) noted significant improvement in the preparation of American children to enter advanced education relative to their US peers of thirty years earlier, pointing out that three times as many students in 2008 had taken pre-calculus or calculus classes, for example. I would question the significance of this particular point, however, because I know that in the late 1970s, my high school did not offer math courses labeled pre-calculus or calculus, and I don’t believe that my high school was anomalous in that regard. However, the NAE study also points out that scores on advanced placement exams in math and science subjects rose rapidly between 1997 and 2008.

Interest, Perseverance & STEM

Three recent articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education highlight the discrepancy noted above. In the first, the author describes a National Center for Education Statistics report noting that 48% of bachelor degree students who matriculated in the 2003-2004 academic year and chose a STEM major field sometime during the ensuing six years, had left those fields by 2009, with roughly half having changed to a non-STEM major field and half having left college before completing their degree.

In a second article reporting on the Beginning College Survey of Student Engagement, the Chronicle authors note that using one-year data from 2012, about 25% of first-year students planning to major in a STEM field had switched to a non-STEM major by the end of their freshman year. Mitigating that loss, however, was the finding that approximately 25% of students who did not intend to major in a STEM field changed course and were majoring in a STEM field by then end of their first year. The authors also note a gender discrepancy: female students were twice as likely to leave STEM majors and male students were 3times more likely to migrate into STEM fields.

And a third report in the Chronicle notes that “[t]he number of science and engineering bachelor’s degrees completed in the United States has climbed 19 percent over the last five years.” This dwarfs the 9% rate of growth noted for other disciplines over the same period according to studies from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. This report further notes the disagreement among experts regarding whether there is a shortage or a glut of STEM graduates in the US today. This is a disagreement that has a long and colorful history.

A recent Huffington Post article notes that the need for STEM graduates significantly exceeds the current supply. Conversely, an article by the Pope Center, a conservative think tank focused on higher education policy, argues that we are producing more STEM graduates than there are jobs for. And finally, a Daily Beast article that synthesizes some of these issues into a digestible format.

What is a Research Administrator to do?

Many research administrators – myself included – started their professional journey with a focus in some STEM-related discipline and migrated into Research Administration. Additionally, as we work with investigators developing grant proposals, we see the key role that undergraduate students, graduate students play in carrying out research projects. Many of us are or have been involved in developing institutional programs to involve high school students in research projects as well. These are all part of developing the pipeline of STEM-trained individuals necessary to meet the varied needs that exist. Academic, corporate, not for profit, and government entities all need staff well grounded in STEM disciplines.  Here are a couple of resources that may be of interest:

  • The US Department of Labor Women’s bureau and the American Association of University Women (AAUW) are hosting a webinar on Women in STEM on December 12, 2013
  • NPR’s Marketplace program aired a segment on Dec 3, 2013 focusing on public engagement with science via You Tube – check the link for several great links to channels that may be of interest.

Now… Back to the Three Bears

It is undoubtedly true that we have been producing more STEM-trained PhDs in recent years than the traditional academic teaching and research environment can absorb. And, particular sub-disciplines may generate more graduates at a point in time that can be absorbed at that moment.  However, there are many positions in industry, working for not-for-profits, and migrating into allied professions – including research administration – available for folks grounded in science and math. And the looming need for physicians and allied health practitioners is well documented. And the job outlook for engineers appears to be equally bright . Perhaps, as Goldilocks found eventually in the three bears’ house, our production of STEM-trained students is ‘just right’. One thing is certain, our society benefits by having a more science literate population – so high school and undergraduate students learning about science and math is never wasted.

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