Questions and issues with the current conversation about increasing STEM, etc. graduates.
Q1: Is there really a dire need for more workers with STEM backgrounds?
A1: Broadly speaking, there is a need, but it is not clear exactly what is needed. I suspect there really isn’t a general need for more PhDs or Masters or maybe even BS degrees in STEM areas, but there is a general need for employees to have more general STEM sense, with probably an emphasis on the technical (T) and quantity (M) side. The confusing part comes in considering specific needs. I suspect in this case that employers and, in some sense, society, has very particular, and almost impossible to satisfy, needs. For example someone with a unique combination of various technical (and soft) skills, with particular knowledge of some system or software.
Q2: Assuming there is a need, how should we go about meeting it?
A2: Because of 2 to 4 to 10 year delay between someone entering college and earning his or her final degree, and the amount of press on the STEM issue, I suspect that much of the added need is, or is going to soon be, met. I’m seeing more students who are interested in taking more math either to earn a minor, or to prepare for a post-BS role that requires more math. With that said, the STEM fields do have a need to keep looking for new opportunities to attract and serve new interests. There is probably a place for a general minor in engineering for students in business. Or an interdisciplinary degree between the softer sciences/social sciences and math or physics.
Q3: What about some STEM training for all students?
A3: Most students get plenty of Science and Math in high school, but not much Technology or Engineering. Most universities continue this trend with their general education or core requirements. So if we do anything, we should look to integrate more T&E into the college curriculum, and in general try to have the science and math requirements prepare students for their possible futures. A little, but useful thing, would be to make sure that students are exposed to some practical statistics.
Q4: Why not more and more STEM?
A4: There’s a downside to this emphasis on STEM areas, as education is a zero-sum game in both time and money. A student taking more STEM classes takes less in other areas. Money spent on developing, staffing, etc. STEM courses, means less money for other areas. We are seeing a variation of this problem as K-12 moves to the Common Core Curriculum, which, by testing, emphasizes math and language arts, leading to concerns that the rest of the curriculum will be marginalized. That’s part of why we are seeing initiatives like STEAM, where the A is for the arts. I think that, yes employers want employees with STEM knowledge and experience, but they also want employees with a broad background and with soft/people skills. There’s also the issue, going back to Q1, that the STEM areas traditionally have taught students to work in STEM careers, and haven’t always adapted to provide broad STEM skills for those not in STEM careers. If you tell a anthropology student who wants some additional but specific training in chemistry, that they need to take 4 or 6 courses before they can get that training, you’re not going to be adding much STEM to that workforce.
I think this will be an emphasis for several years, and lots of money will be thrown at it, with mostly minor results. We’ll hopefully see some expansion of programs and opportunities and some improvements in the quality and variety of instruction available to students.