Reversing the Nation’s STEM Shortfall

Connexeo - 05/28/2018

The push to encourage students to explore education in the STEM fields – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics – continues, with many studies focused on ensuring today’s youth will be trained for the jobs of the future.

And STEM jobs will be plentiful, according to the Education Commission of the States. A commission survey predicts that STEM jobs will increase 13% from 2017-2027, compared to 9% for all other fields. Among the STEM industries, computing jobs are expected to increase by 14%, advanced manufacturing by 12% and engineering by 7%.  

These jobs pay more than double the hourly wage of other jobs, the same survey found -- $38.85, compared to $19.30/hr – and the unemployment rate in STEM fields was 2.2% from 2014-2017, while 5.5% of workers in other lines of work were jobless during that time period, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The BLS also found that wages in 93 of 100 STEM occupations were above the national average.

That should be enough to persuade ambitious young people to pursue a STEM path in high school and then in college. However, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Just 44% of high school graduates in 2013 were ready for college-level math and 36% were ready for college-level science, according to the National Math & Science Initiative.

It has been well-documented that boys take to STEM fields more readily than girls – even though that is not the case as late as middle school. While 74% of sixth- to eighth-grade girls are interested in STEM subjects, according to Girls Who Code, only 0.3% end up majoring in computer science in college.

One reason, according to a recent Microsoft study reported in Forbes, is that young women overwhelmingly want careers that help the world and are creative. The research found these girls have not seen examples that show how STEM jobs fulfill those desires.

The key seems to be field work. More than 75% of the girls who were involved in outside-the-classroom, hands-on STEM activities felt a sense of empowerment, according to the Forbes piece on the Microsoft study. Less than 50% who were limited to classroom exposure felt the same.

Parents can influence their children, according to University of Wisconsin psychology professor Judith Harackiewicz, who wrote about her findings in an Education Week blog. Her study began when she and her colleagues sent the parents of 87 10th-graders a glossy brochure, followed up by another one the next year. These families also received access to a password-protected website. A control group of families got none of those materials, nor could they access the website.

A large majority of the parents – 86% -- shared the resources with their teenagers, and at least one parent in 82% of the families accessed the website. The families were interviewed after each of the teens’ last three years of high school, and the youngsters were tracked through age 20.

The results: The students in the families that received the materials had greater respect for the importance of math and science, scored higher on the math and science ACT tests and took more math and science courses their junior and senior years than those in the control group. They also were more likely to choose STEM-related majors once they went to college.

To generate interest in these fields, make it fun! A study by the Toy Association (yes, it’s serious research) found that play does help children develop direct and indirect STEM – and STEAM, adding the “A” for Arts – skills and abilities. They just don’t realize it.

Some of the quotes from the study:

  • “Scientists have…made the connection between working with our hands and figures and mathematical abilities. Toys that encourage fine motor skills have the added benefit of growing the brain, especially the parietal cortex.”
  • “If we want to build scientists, artists or successful individuals who can imagine things that have not yet been created, then we must allow kids to play with things that prompt the use of their individual imagination.”
  • “When playing with toys, kids develop skills that can be transferred to their studies and success in STEAM such as observing, abstracting, recognizing and forming patterns, dimensional thinking, modeling, transforming and synthesizing, along with communicating and collaborating.”

While it will be difficult to stem the tide of diminished science and math success in schools, moderate parental intervention, early childhood play and providing hands-on opportunities for students – especially girls – will go a long way to prepare tomorrow’s workforce.


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