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The "STEM Myth" is a Myth
By John Freeman Posted:December 3, 2013 0 Comments
Anyone who has been following the debate around STEM education has seen some form of anti-STEM argument brewing in the media over the last few months. Whether it is bemoaning the overemphasis of science at the expense of humanities and the arts or whether it is trying to skew numbers to show that the future American workforce simply will not need that many STEM workers, the broader efforts proposed and executed over the last few years are under attack. However, while these arguments often hold a kernel of truth, they miss out on the larger picture. In short, if the USA is to remain an intellectual and creative leader in the global marketplace, students must be better prepared to take on STEM careers than they have been in the past.

One major argument against a STEM education focus is that it deprives students of the benefits that humanities and the arts provide. While no one is arguing that these subjects do not provide a valuable part of every child's education, STEM subjects are often pushed aside during a child's early learning years. In elementary schools, many schools focus on reading, writing, and the humanities at the expense of science and other STEM fields. This lead to a recent study that many students lose interest in science by the time they reach age 8. Once their interest is lost, it is hard to rekindle that desire later on in life. Further, STEM education is not one block of learning; instead, it incorporates a variety of models to expose students to the sciences. In fact, many programs adopt STEAM programs, where the extra "a" emphasizes the role that the arts can play in keeping students interested and activated in future learning.

There are a finite number of hours in the school day, and students need a grounding in everything to succeed in today's world; however, the pendulum has swung so long in the favor of humanities that some readjustment towards STEM subjects will have a twofold benefit: first, it will expose more students to these subjects that they may want to pursue as a career, and second, it will provide everyone a better grounding in science than they currently receive. With these things to consider, the benefits of STEM-based education often outweigh the negatives that may or may not manifest on the side of humanities and the arts.

The other major complaint from the opponents are that there may not be the number of jobs available in the STEM fields that studies that promote it suggest there might be. For instance, a study from 2011 by the Center on Education and the Workforce about the need for 2.4 million STEM jobs in the next ten years failed to take into account the full extent of lost jobs from the Great Recession. Further, many similar studies conducted in the latter part of the last decade also failed to fully comprehend how bad the Great Recession would hit the sciences and related fields who are still rebuilding from the low points they experienced in 2010-2011. But, just because there are setbacks in a field, this does not mean that growth stops completely or that growth will not expand again in the future. Indeed, STEM fields have the potential to lead the economy in the coming decades as more and more students enter the workforce in this area, primed to make it a key mover in American business. Stopping the great STEM preparation work that is going on just because some projections may fall short of initial claims does not remove the larger truth: STEM is growing, and the United States will need better trained workers to fill these spots.

Another thing pointed out by some STEM opponents are that the vast majority of STEM majors do not work directly in the STEM fields. However, this fails to take into account that most STEM majors who are proceeding well in their careers hit management by the time they turn 35. With this shift in job responsibilities, they have technically left the STEM workforce, but STEM education has still played a vital role in their professional success. This atrophy of the STEM workforce that moves people up the ladder to management and off of the lab bench means that businesses will need more (not less) people trained in STEM to take up the mantle as the previous generation gets promoted or shifts its professional priorities.

Finally, STEM education has the potential to unlock boundless achievement in students. The highest paid major for the last six years has consistently remained in the STEM fields (in this case, petroleum engineering), and most STEM students can look forward to earning more in their lifetimes than their non-STEM counterparts. However, in an age when 6 out of 10 high school seniors have lost their passion for science in just four years, in a time when minorities and women are consistently left behind in STEM progress, and in an environment when more colleges are cutting STEM programs in the face of budget shortfalls that make it more economical to teach cheaper humanities courses, it is not the time to lessen the country's emphasis on STEM. Instead, it is time to celebrate the progress that has been made in just a few short years, and it should allow the country the opportunity to look boldly forward and see how all of the excellent work that is being done by teachers, administrators, business leaders, policymakers, and all other interested parties in STEM education are better preparing students for the workforce than they have been in years. Success does not mean we should throw out what is working; instead, we should be full speed ahead.