Why It's a Mistake to Push All Students Into STEM Careers

For a number of years, the education industry has been creating initiatives to urge primary and secondary students to consider careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). This push was initially spurred by cries from employers that were having trouble finding enough technical talent.

STEM career fields, which include the medical sciences, tend to pay well and provide steady work, but they are not for everyone. That last statement seems like it should go without saying because it’s true for most things in life. Unfortunately, the way STEM is being promoted, it seems that parents, educators, and politicians don’t seem to understand that.

I’ve spent my entire adult life in science and technology fields as a student, researcher, supervisor, and educator. My original decision to go to college was a last-minute one based mostly on the fact that I was 18, had nothing better to do, and had no discernible skills.

Why I chose to go into science is somewhat of a mystery considering I was never a good student, and even my ninth-grade algebra teacher told me not to consider a career field requiring math. However, after several changes in majors, I finally switched to physics.

Today, a typical high school curriculum might include a number of courses in sciences and mathematics as a state requirement for graduation. These requirements were put in place because people in high places were concerned that the country was falling behind internationally in those subject areas. Thus, the whole education system refocused its efforts on getting students to meet arbitrary state graduation requirements regardless of any other need or condition.

The results of these efforts are mixed and really can’t be covered in detail here, except to remind everyone that when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Therefore, although some students may have benefited from these courses, a great number of others are left frustrated, feeling inferior and cheated out of more basic and necessary life training. And then there are the students who successfully suffered through understanding the Side Angle Side theory in geometry, and never had to use that knowledge again.

Most parents want the best for their children, and a good education is high on the wish list. But when approaching education, many parents make some well-intentioned but fundamental mistakes, especially when they blindly steer their children to take science and math courses. Many parents are also vocal in demanding their school systems offer more and better science and math courses for their children.

When I talk to these parents, I usually ask them what the tangent of 45 degrees is, or ask them to rattle off the quadratic formula. The answers are a case study in themselves. The vast majority of adults have no clue even though many studied algebra and trigonometry at one time and either never understood the subjects or never had to use them in their professional lives – and that’s okay. What’s not okay is when these same parents are demanding their kids know what they chose not to know.