Science, technology, engineering and math – or STEM – is arguably the most talked about education and workforce development topic today. It should be: STEM is the very foundation upon which students will build the skills and knowledge they need for a successful career, no matter their chosen profession.
At Project Lead the Way, the Indiana-based organization I am proud to lead, we believe STEM is more than the individual subjects that make up the acronym – science, technology, engineering and math – which are specific subjects that are commonly taught in isolation. It is important that students have a strong math and science background, of course, but STEM, as an integrated and applied way of learning, helps students develop critical thinking, collaboration and problem-solving skills – skills necessary to compete in today’s global economy. Students learn that math and science are essential tools to help identify problems, collect data, test solutions and solve problems. This type of learning has never been more important.
The U.S. Department of Commerce projects that the United States will have 1.2 million unfilled jobs in STEM fields by the year 2018. STEM jobs, the department reports, are growing at a rate nearly double non-STEM jobs – 17 percent versus 9.8 percent. As a result, a 2012 report from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology found that economic forecasts point to a need for producing, over the next decade, approximately 1 million more college graduates in STEM fields than expected under current assumptions. These findings clearly support the need for implementing high-quality STEM programs in U.S. elementary, middle and high schools. If the U.S. is to retain its pre-eminence in technology and innovation, we must continue engaging students in math and science and inspiring them to pursue careers in the STEM fields.
A recent study out of Ball State University’s Center for Business and Economic Research tells a different story. Researchers suggested that Indiana is not experiencing a shortage of workers in STEM fields, particularly in clinical, healthcare-related occupations. But this is a very different story than small, medium and large employers in Indiana and across the nation are sharing.
The findings from the Ball State study should not discourage students from studying a rigorous STEM curriculum. STEM is where the good jobs are and where the good jobs will be. STEM occupations have a lower unemployment rate than those with other degrees, and STEM wages are higher than those in non-STEM occupations.
Additionally, the benefits of a STEM education, especially in K-12, reach far beyond students’ interests or preparedness to study a STEM major in college. Students who enroll in a STEM program of study, like Project Lead the Way’s Launch, Gateway, engineering, biomedical science or computer science programs, learn the relevance of math and science in their everyday lives. While strengthening their math and science skills, students also learn valuable skills such as problem solving, critical thinking and collaboration. They learn how to apply knowledge in different settings and situations. These are skills that employers are seeking across all industry sectors and professions, both STEM- and non-STEM-related.
STEM skills and lessons are connected to everything we do. A strong math and science foundation is important, but the skills learned through a high-quality, integrated, project-based STEM program teach much more than the subjects of math, science, engineering and technology – they teach skills that are vital to a successful job, career and life. And if a student, through a STEM program, discovers that he or she has a passion for engineering or science and decides to pursue it as a career, a STEM foundation will prove even more beneficial.