STEM Fields Show a Clear Path to Economic Growth in the U.S.

Two female blonde students filling out paper forms

Unemployment statistics in the United States uncover a contradiction: Despite historically high levels of unemployment, a significant amount of job openings remain unfilled. The majority of these jobs have one common requirement: an educational background in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, collectively recognized as STEM. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, only 5 percent of U.S. workers are employed in fields related to science and engineering, yet they are responsible for more than 50 percent of our sustained economic expansion (U.S. Science and Engineering, 2012). Economic growth will come from jobs that demand these skills. This begs the question: What can educators do to attract more girls and boys to fill them?

The Current Situation

Rita Idugboe in the lab at schoolAs a female college STEM student, I see firsthand the gender disparity in the U.S. The difficulty in eliciting STEM interest in girls, in large part, is due to the common misconception that the STEM fields are better suited for boys. In spite of the current progression of women in the technology and engineering fields, there is still, a noteworthy gender gap of females in mathematics and science professions. I am saddened by this reality. According to the National Science Foundation (NSF), in 2012, bachelor’s degrees attained by young women only accounted for 19.2 percent in engineering, and 18 percent in computer sciences in the United States (Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering, 2012). What is certain is that the future of the U.S. would be much better if there were more engineers, scientists, and mathematicians.

Change the Equation, a nongovernmental organization that supports STEM education, released a study in 2013 stating that there are 3.6 unemployed workers for every job in the United States, and that equates to one unemployed STEM worker for two unfilled STEM jobs (Not All STEM Degrees Created Equal, 2013).

STEM-related jobs are not only plentiful, they pay well. According to a report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, 65 percent of students with undergraduate degrees in STEM fields earned more than students with master’s degrees in non-STEM occupations. Better yet, 47 percent of undergraduate degrees in STEM occupations earn more than PhDs in non-STEM fields (STEM Executive Summary, 2014).

Regardless of the lucrative potential, many students are reluctant to pursue careers that require a background in STEM. In a 2012 survey by the Lemselson-MIT Invention Index, which gauges innovation aptitude among young adults, 60 percent of young adults from ages 16 and 25 mentioned at least one factor that prevented them from pursuing an education or employment in the STEM fields. 34 percent opined they do not know much about the fields, a third said STEM is too challenging, and 28 percent agreed that they were not well-prepared at school to seek further education in these areas (Young Americans recognize the impact of innovation on U.S. economy and personal lives, 2012). This is a problem for young people and for the United States. With the estimated shortfall of one million engineers, computer scientists, and technology designers by 2020 (President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, 2012), the current trend will negatively impact the U. S. economy.

What Educators Can Do

To mitigate the status quo and promote STEM education, female students should be exposed to strong female STEM role models as early as possible – in elementary school. For me, that role model was my mother, who encouraged me to deconstruct, analyze, and experiment with our home appliances. The insight I gained into how things work together opened my eyes to new possibilities and instilled in me a desire to create new technologies. Students show an interest in STEM subjects, but the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, in 2012, concluded that roughly 40 percent of college students planning to major in engineering and science end up switching to other subjects (President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, 2012).  It is vital to show girls and boys from a young age, the varied, creatively driven, and fascinating careers available to them in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Educators can do their part to keep students interested in and pursuing these fields of study.

To keep students interested, they need to see the real-world application of STEM fields.  Schools can pair students with corporate mentors, who would help guide curricula and provide real-world insight into industry trends. Students could be advised on the merits of taking as many math and science courses in middle and high school as possible. And these courses need to be taught by engaged and enthusiastic teachers using a constructionist approach—hands-on and minds-on activities. Making science and math courses fun and interesting will not only help students to learn, but might also plant a “seed of interest” that could grow into an exciting and rewarding STEM career.

To ensure a stable and competitive economy in 2020, the U.S. need STEM-related talent to compete globally. To this end, the cooperation of educators, state governments, and educational organizations alike must align with corporate efforts to reinforce and promote STEM education. It is not a matter of choice: For the United States to remain a global innovation leader, we must make the most of all the potential STEM talent the country has to offer.

 

About the Author
Rita Idugboe

Rita Idugboe

Rita Idugboe is a  senior pursuing a major in biotechnology and a minor in marketing at the University of Houston. Rita is a student sales representative in the nation’s largest sales program; Program for Excellence in Selling, receiving 180 hours of live sales training. Rita is also an undergraduate research assistant in the Cullen College of Engineering collaborating with faculty on diabetes and cancer research with a focus on Optical Coherence Tomography (OCT), a non-invasive imaging technique. Her bi-cultural background and focus on community collaboration has led her to a number of volunteer opportunities and leadership roles on and off-campus.

 

References

U.S. Science and Engineering Labor Force Stalls, but Trends Vary Across States. (2012, February 15). Retrieved November 10, 2015, from http://www.prb.org/Publications/Articles/2012/scientists-engineers.aspx

Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering. (2012, May 7). Retrieved December 10, 2015, from http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/2015/nsf15311/digest/

Not All STEM Degrees Created Equal. (2013, May 30). Retrieved October 18, 2015, from http://changetheequation.org/blog/not-all-stem-degrees-created-equal

STEM Executive Summary. (2014, October 1). Retrieved October 18, 2015, from https://cew.georgetown.edu/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/stem-execsum.pdf

Survey: Young Americans recognize the impact of innovation on U.S. economy and personal lives. (2012, March 4). Retrieved October 18, 2015, from http://news.mit.edu/2012/lemelson-invention-index-0125

President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. (2012, February). Engage to Excel: Producing one million additional college graduates with degrees in science, technology. Washington, DC: U.S. Retrieved November 10, 2015 from http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/microsites/ostp/pcast-engage-to-excel-final_2-25-12.pdf