What’s wrong with STEM education? – Part 1

by Abigail Ahlert, Graduate student in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, CU Boulder

Education policies shape the learning environment and curricula of students of all ages across the country. Perhaps the most common acronym in education news and policy today is STEM. In recent years, the push for enhanced science and math education has surged to an extreme in an effort to address a so-called “STEM crisis” in American schools. But to reach a solution, we must first understand the problem.

What is STEM education?

The acronym STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. According to the U.S. Department of Education, “it’s more important than ever for our youth to be equipped with the knowledge and skills to solve tough problems, gather and evaluate evidence, and make sense of information.” These, they argue, are the skills that students develop by studying science, technology, engineering, and math.  In news reports and discussions of education policy, buzzwords such as “problem-solving” and “innovation” are often used to bring STEM fields out of the technical shadows and emphasize their societal importance.

Why do we need to improve STEM education?

The motivation for improving STEM education in the United States is two-fold. First, many believe that scientists and engineers are necessary for addressing large-scale issues in a wide range of fields, spanning medicine to infrastructure to environmental protection. STEM is poetically framed as a window to our past, present, and future world—a tool to help us better understand, utilize and appreciate our place in the universe. As Carl Sagan once said, “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.”

The second reason, with perhaps less grandeur, is money. The National Math and Science Initiative (NMSI) asserts that the “achievement gap” between American students and other students worldwide could be costing the U.S. trillions of dollars per year. Furthermore, NMSI claims that over the next 10 years, 1 million additional STEM graduates will be necessary to fill roles in the U.S. economy. As depicted in Figure 1, multiple careers in STEM are expected to grow faster than average over the next decade.


Figure 1: U.S. Department of Education

These job projections, in addition to those from the U.S. Department of Labor, support the idea that demand for STEM workers is growing. However, it is important to note that the STEM market is heterogeneous and growth will be uneven. A study by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that in the academic realm, there is a surplus of Ph.D.s seeking tenure-track faculty positions, while a shortage of Ph.D.-level workers exists in the government job sector. The private sector has an oversupply of biomedical, chemistry and physics Ph.D.s but a high demand for software developers, petroleum engineers and data scientists.

With STEM careers on the rise and technologies evolving rapidly, improving broad-based science and math education is becoming increasingly important. The authors of a study called Innovation and STEM Education from the University of Florida put it bluntly, writing, “The bottom line is: we cannot educate tomorrow’s workers for specific occupations today, because we cannot be sure these jobs will be there tomorrow. But we can educate workers to be more innovative and creative.”

So, is the U.S. giving students the resources and educational foundation they need to become innovative scientists and engineers? Probably not, if global test scores are any indication (and that’s a big “if’). According to the Pew Research Center, the most recent results available from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) are from 2012. Out of the 64 countries surveyed, the 2012 PISA ranks the U.S. as 35th in math and 27th in science. For a country that spends almost 3% of its GDP on scientific research and development—one of the highest percentages in the world—these rankings are generally disappointing.

In addition to middle-of-the-pack test scores, STEM education and related careers lack diversity in both race and gender, a problem that impacts student retention. Without supportive and inclusive environments, talented minority students see limited opportunities. For example, NMSI states that women make up 48% if the U.S. workforce but only 24% of STEM jobs. National Science Foundation data shows that Hispanic, Black, Asian and Pacific Islander students together made up less than 30% of bachelor’s degree recipients in science and engineering in 2012. These factors, in addition to the problems in teaching and curriculum structure at the college level, mean that 59% of students who enter college as a STEM major do not receive a degree in six years.

Students aren’t the only retention problem in STEM. The U.S. Department of Education reported teacher shortages in STEM areas in 45 out of 50 states during the 2014-2015 school year. Without a steady flow of STEM teachers, other instructors are left to pick up the slack. A study released in 2011 by the National Center for Education Statistics shows that about 30% of public high school chemistry and physics teachers did not major in or receive a certification to teach these subjects.

To be continued…

To remain competitive in the global economy and solve the pressing issues of our time, the problems hampering STEM education in the United States must be addressed. Part 2 will outline a few possible solutions, why these solutions are at times imperfect and how the U.S. government and other organizations are already taking strides towards improving STEM education. Stay tuned!


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