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Is STEM Really Working?

Generally speaking, there always seems to be a shortage of scientists and engineers. Many jobs go unfilled because companies cannot find suitable candidates. The job market fluctuates, of course, but I can hardly remember a time when we had a surplus of scientists or engineers. For this reason, the whole STEM movement was initiated. STEM means science, technology, engineering, and math. The goal of the STEM movement is to produce more STEM graduates to fill those open jobs and keep the United States competitive globally.

The objectives of STEM programs are to interest young people early in their school life to instill an interest in STEM work. The program also helps prep teachers so they can teach the subjects to high-school and middle-school students. Many parties are involved including the schools, government, companies, professional associations, and other organizations. There are grants, workshops, science fairs and a bunch of other programs that seek to stimulate an interest in science and engineering. Over the past few years, the movement has grown into a massive effort. 

What I would like to know is, is all this working? Are colleges seeing an increase in STEM enrollments? Are they graduating an increasing number of science and engineering majors? Are employers actually getting the workers they need?  Yes, I know that this is a long-term pipeline effort, but surely someone is seeing a positive impact. Is there anyone keeping track? Or is this one of those feel-good efforts that throws a lot of money and time at a problem and hopes for some positive outcome?

I have been researching STEM initiatives for several months now. Maybe I am just a bad researcher, but I have not been able to find any stats that indicate that the STEM campaign is working. The National Science Foundation (NSF) funds many programs and they usually demand results, but the outcomes are not available from the organization. There are lots of other programs and events. But I have not identified any resources that keep track of results. Maybe there are none. I did identify a small, single-digit increase in engineering graduates over the past few years, but there is no information regarding why that is. STEM programs may have helped, but we really do not know for sure.

One fact I did uncover is that a high percentage or those students who start out aiming for a STEM degree never graduate with a STEM degree. An estimated one-third of new college students sign up for STEM programs, but only about half end up with a STEM degree. Once students encounter those freshman and sophomore math and physics courses, they soon switch majors to business, communications, sports management, or some other non-STEM major. The passion is just not there to justify the extra work needed to succeed in STEM.

What seems to be happening is that the STEM programs generate an initial interest with exciting efforts like building robots or flying drones, but it does not last. If the effort does result in a STEM enrollment, it is soon abandoned as the student hits the wall with the rigorous early math and science courses. Unless the interest is deep and sustaining, the student soon moves on to something else. The STEM programs are certainly attracting those with a real interest in engineering, but is it also attracting those with only a passing interest without the passion?

A major part of the STEM movement is the effort to recruit more women and minorities to science and technology. The programs to attract more women to STEM are particularly widespread. Women scientists and engineers are certainly a small percentage of the STEM population. Women make great engineers and scientists, and it would be great to have more. Yet in my past career as a college professor involved in recruiting students for my electronics program, I discovered that women were just not that interested in STEM subjects. Is that an inherent characteristic? Can it be overcome?

I spoke with Professor David Koonce of Ohio University about STEM. He was involved in research related to women in STEM. He said that most of the success was at the community-college level and that much more needs to be done at the university level. Professor Koonce also feels that the role of industry is crucial. Industry often believes that the knowledge and skills of an individual are more important than any specific degree. Right now the STEM movement is a “push” effort by academia, but needs to be more of a market-need “pull” effort by industry. Industry needs to be more involved with mentors, role models, and internships.

I am all for the STEM movement and I hope all the programs succeed. I just wish there was some feedback to those involved that indicates their efforts are not all in vain. Let me know your thoughts on this.

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