STEM push must continue in college
Published: Sunday, August 19, 2012
Updated: Monday, August 20, 2012 06:08
A little more than a month ago, the Central Florida Future ran an editorial stance titled, “STEM initiatives not the answer,” which casted a critical gaze on America’s education system. Sources listed in the article showed good reason for the criticism, too: surveys rank American students poorly in terms of their math and science scores as compared to other countries, jobs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields are difficult to find, and companies that are employing people in these fields report low satisfaction with the results. The overall conclusion of the article was that STEM programs in this country, which received $3.6 billion in the 2010 fiscal year, are not working.
But the real question here is what our STEM programs are designed to do. A prominent complaint in last month’s article was that “only 14 percent of graduates with a doctorate in biology secure an academic position within five years.” As a student enrolled in UCF’s only humanities doctoral program, I can’t help but think that 14 percent is a pretty good number. For nearly a decade, people with academic jobs in the humanities have been writing explicit warnings in The Chronicle of Higher Education about the dangers of the current state of humanities employment. Peter Conn, an English professor at the University of Pennsylvania, took on the whole field, saying the system is broken, and Thomas H. Benton, an academic culture columnist, directly told prospective students not to even bother going for a degree. The number of available academic jobs in STEM fields might seem low, but by comparison, they have potential.
We can get more perspective if we look at overall employability, rather than strictly academic jobs. In our current economy, getting any job that matches your degree is rare, regardless of field. The Associated Press reports that, out of people under age 25 who hold a bachelor’s degree, nearly 54 percent are unemployed or underemployed. In short, the odds are against anyone graduating from college today, not just those in STEM fields.
So what should we do about STEM education initiatives? Keep them, strengthen them and bring them into higher education. The technology sector, particularly computer engineering and computer science, is still growing, despite the end of the Internet boom. The successful landing of the Curiosity Mars rover and the progress of SpaceX’s commercial programs have recaptured a bit of popular interest in space programs. The trouble, according to Christopher Drew of the New York Times, is that science classes are “so darn hard.” Drew says that STEM initiatives for education from kindergarten through twelfth grade have been successful, getting students excited by and interested in STEM careers. The problem, he says, is in college. Students leave the hands-on science education of grade school and enter the theoretical world of undergraduate courses. The STEM initiatives in lower grades are working — students are getting excited by these fields — but the tough competition upon arrival in college frustrates them and makes them turn to other degrees.
The problem with STEM initiatives is not that they under prepare students for a tough job market. The problem is not that they fail to prepare students for college coursework. The problem is that they are too successful in getting younger students excited, and colleges have yet to take up the challenge of making sure science education stays clearly relevant. The answers we need for STEM education come from continuing the progress we’ve already made with grade-school programs and expanding them into the undergraduate level. Our public education system is creating more students excited by STEM careers. Our economy needs highly qualified people to fill demanding STEM positions. Our universities must take up the challenge and help prepare the eager students our STEM initiatives create.