Should You Push Math and Science?

Media pundits and policymakers have been telling us for years that we need to graduate more STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) students, because our companies just can’t get enough qualified workers. I wrote a little bit about this perceived “Sputnik Moment” last year.

But now there is a new report by the Economic Policy Institute that blasts a hole in that story. After crunching all the numbers, it seems that the U.S. has more than enough STEM graduates. In fact, for every two STEM graduates, only one is able to get a job in his or her field. This seems to match the reports I have been reading over the years in the “American Society of Engineering Educators” newsletters, which suggest that many of our engineering graduates are having trouble finding jobs.

Percent of high school graduates going to college, graduating, and then entering a STEM job.
Source: Economic Policy Institute

This report also challenges the critics who say that U.S. schools are failing because our students don’t score as well as China, Canada, and other rivals on international tests. While it’s true that on average, U.S. students only score in the middle of the pack, some analysts say that this is a very simplistic and misleading summary. It makes a good sound bite, but raging over our seemingly weak performance completely misses other more positive information buried in year-to-year trends, socioeconomic indicators, and test methodology. In fact, the U.S. has a lot of highly qualified students who score in the top tiers of these types of tests.

The emphasis of the report is really on clearing up misconceptions about our STEM labor market as it influences foreign guest-worker and immigration policies, but I’ll let someone else fret over that.

What concerns me is the whole idea of pushing certain career fields on kids, even for reasons that seem noble on the surface. Whose interest does it serve? If kids choose a STEM field because everyone is telling them how desperately our country needs them, which implies job opportunities, and then it turns out not to be true, then those kids just lost out on 4 years of their lives which might have been better spent studying something they really care about.

Policymakers worry  that too many kids drop out of STEM fields while in college, but the EPI report claims that, in reality, more kids transfer in to STEM fields from non-STEM fields while in college, so the net result is usually more STEM majors at the end of 4 years than at the beginning. It seems that we are bemoaning a problem that does not exist.

Why do we give so much attention to engineering a work force that suits the needs of industry? If we only focused on what’s best for each student, I believe there will still be plenty of highly qualified and motivated individuals in every field, because all students quite naturally have different interests. With a student-led curriculum, the only thing we might have a shortage of is mindless submission.

It’s important to expose kids to lots of different things, including math and science, but they need to have the space and freedom to follow their fascinations, even if you can’t imagine how they would ever make a living doing that. If they later decide to pursue a career for monetary or security reasons, that’s up to them. Just make sure their expectations match reality – and not someone else’s agenda.

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