There’s no shortage these days of articles on the shortage of STEM*-major students. Not quite as common, but arguably more important, are articles critically assessing whether such a shortage exists. The Chronicle of Higher Education a few days ago featured a nice essay in the latter category, The STEM Crisis: Reality or Myth?
*Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math
It’s worth reading; I’ll excerpt a few bits here:
“For the United States to maintain its global supremacy in innovation, the commonplace goes, the nation must crank out more and more college graduates in STEM programs… A council set up by President Obama has called for one million new STEM graduates and 100,000 new teachers in those fields over the next decade.”
“…the STEM-worker shortage is not only a meme but a myth. …if you’re a biologist, chemist, electrical engineer, manufacturing worker, mechanical engineer, or physicist, you’ve most likely seen your paycheck remain flat at best. If you’re a recent grad in those fields looking for a job, good luck.”
Why? It’s interesting to actually look at the oft-cited Presidents Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) (2012) “Engage to Excel” report, from which the “million new STEM-related jobs” figure comes. The considerable majority of these jobs are in areas related to computation; there is not an expected dramatic increase in STEM jobs in general. (See Appendix D.) In addition, as nicely described in Paula Stephan’s excellent How Economics Shapes Science, which I’ve commented on before, predictions of shortages of science/technology graduates in the U.S. have appeared many times in the past, and have always been wrong. It’s hard to predict the actual need for STEM-trained students, and the predictions that exist are driven largely by the biased perspectives of groups that benefit from cheap technical workers or the desire for self-propagation.
So, I’d argue that there isn’t a STEM shortage in any meaningful sense. Is there any need, then, to focus on STEM education? I’m the principal investigator on a recently submitted STEM education grant — am I part of the problem? There are, I think, important issues in STEM education that need attention. We should always, for example, try to improve the quality of STEM education (not its quantity), e.g. what skills we impart to students, and why. For example: I and many others would argue that familiarity with programming should be far more widespread, and that all first-year life-sciences students, for example, should be introduced to basic programming and modeling.
More generally, it’s worth promoting STEM education because STEM-related skills are useful in a vast range of non-STEM areas. This is noted in the CHE article as well:
Educating people to become tech-savvy can benefit them in non-STEM ways, such as by preparing them for jobs that require an understanding of how complicated things work.
If one believes, as I do, that the combination of quantitative rigor and creative problem solving that plays a central role in studying (for example) physics is useful and important, we should encourage people to study physics, and guide them to paths in which they can apply this way of thinking to problems in politics, or law, or public health, as well as “traditional” science and technology. More broadly, the whole “STEM crisis” discussion feeds into the misguided idea that college is supposed to be vocational training, when rather, for both the sciences and the humanities, it should be about training in broad perspectives and skills that map onto many aspects of the contemporary world. A more interesting question than “are there enough STEM majors” is, I think, “What can we do to maximize the impact of the STEM majors we’re training?”