STEM Education: Why All the Fuss?

Stephen DeAngelis

May 8, 2014

If you follow the topic of education, you know that there is an ongoing debate about whether the United States is educating enough people in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and/or mathematics — the so-called STEM subjects. Although employers like me will tell you that we often have a difficult time finding employees with the right skills, some pundits claim that we are educating more than enough students in these subjects. However, the argument about numbers is really a red herring. Educating students in STEM subjects (if taught correctly) prepares students for life, regardless of the profession they choose to follow. Those subjects teach students how to think critically and how to solve problems — skills that can be used throughout life to help them get through tough times and take advantage of opportunities whenever they appear. Analysts at Samsung, the technology company, also believe that teaching students STEM subjects using a project-based approach can give them a more refined world-view. [“How STEM Education Inspires Kids, Educators To Act Locally, Think Globally,” Forbes, 20 January 2014] The article states:

“As technology continues to evolve and impact society in countless ways, educators have been tasked with preparing the next generation to navigate an ever-changing world. However, teachers are finding it difficult to lay a foundation of science and math skills using just the federal common core standards. ‘Kids go through science or math education, but they’re in the classroom. It’s about memorizing things and it’s hard to really connect to it,’ said David Steel, Executive Vice President of Samsung Electronics America.”

One of the reasons that I, along with a few colleagues, founded The Project for STEM Competitiveness, was to help get a project-based, problem-solving approach into schools. Samsung feels exactly the same way. That’s why the company started the Samsung Solve for Tomorrow contest. The contest provides an approach “to transform the way students study science, technology, engineering and math (also known as STEM) by literally bringing innovation to their doorsteps.” The article explains:

“The program poses a simple challenge: Show how science and math can help improve the environment in your community. By solving a tangible problem affecting their neighborhood or even their families, students understand the immediate benefits, learn the broader implications, and hopefully develop a newfound, lasting appreciation for the power of STEM.”

There is little controversy about the fact that the world is getting more technologically advanced. In both developed and developing countries, technologies, like mobile phones, are transforming how people live. Knowing how to build, program, and/or use advanced technologies are becoming critical skills for the future. It has been estimated that 65 percent of today’s students will end up in jobs that haven’t yet been invented! Even for jobs that currently exist, those skills are becoming increasingly important. Harrison Jackson reports, “During the past decades, the medical and pharmaceutical, research and development, information technology and other science and technology related fields have skyrocketed in job demand and net worth. The demand for well-trained and educated doctors, researchers, developers, computer specialists and other similar jobs has increased dramatically, as has their salary and benefits.” [“STEM programs crucial for a competitive future,”, 6 April 2014] He continues:

“Companies like Johnson and Johnson, Pfizer, Mac, Google and other Fortune 500 firms send out talent scouts and ‘head hunters’ across the globe in search of the best and brightest employees to bring back to their respective companies. Unfortunately, it seems that many American high school and college graduates get passed over for these highly competitive but highly paid jobs. One of the reasons often cited by companies for bringing in international talent is that U.S. high school and college graduates are not as proficient as their global counterparts in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, a federal agency in charge of collecting, analyzing and interpreting educational data, American school children are falling behind in the STEM fields. In 2012, there were 29 nations whose high school students performed at a higher level of math than U.S. high school students, and 22 nations whose high school students performed at a higher level of science than U.S. high school students. As of 2013, only 44 percent of U.S. high school graduates were ready for college level math, while only 36 percent of U.S. high school graduates were ready for college level science.”

I understand that not every child is destined to be a scientist, a technologist, an engineer, or a mathematician; nevertheless, every child needs to be equipped with critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Take, for example, Cynthia Kramer, who “for many years … worked in the high fashion and couture industry as a designer.” Haute couture is generally not considered a STEM industry; however, Kramer found that the more she knew about STEM subjects the better designer she became. “Now, Kramer is the founder and executive director of Science and Citizens Organized for Purpose and Exploration (SCOPE), a not-for-profit organization dedicated to engaging the public on education and issues regarding STEM. SCOPE also provides information on STEM education, internship and career opportunities.” [“We Are All STEM?” by Samuel Weigley, Techli St. Louis, 11 April 2014] Weigley continues:

“Much of the talk about STEM fields can be intimidating for those not super into them. For instance, the news media has talked about robots hollowing the middle class and English majors destined to work as waiters and waitresses for eternity. Kramer thinks that the negativity surrounding the issue is preposterous and isn’t trying to push kids to become the next Doogie Hawser or Bill Gates. Rather, her mission is to show the community how STEM is involved in their daily lives and put a potential STEM career on the map for future generations. ‘We want to reach out to people who don’t necessarily view themselves as connected to STEM fields,’ Kramer said. ‘The truth is everyone is connected. You have a smartphone? You are involved with STEM. You Google? STEM. … Ultimately, we want to meet people where they are at rather than preach,’ she added.”

If you are a teacher and don’t have a formal STEM program in your school, there are still some things that you can do to help prepare your students for the future. The following infographic from examtime describes a few approaches you can take on your own and a few approaches you can encourage your school to adopt.

Find more education infographics on e-Learning Infographics

Why all the fuss about STEM education? The fuss is not about creating a nation of geeks or nerds but creating a nation filled with individuals who can think critically, solve problems, and make the most of life. Like Cynthia Kramer says, “We are all STEM.”