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.

STEM promotion, as a national program, is the next cause du jour to improve our technical labor pool. STEM programs start at the primary school level and go on through the secondary grades, and even somewhat into undergraduate studies.

How much money is spent on promoting STEM programs is hard to estimate because STEM itself can take on many variants, and funding can come from multiple agencies hidden in a myriad of programs. However, a 2011 White House report claims $3.4 billion was spent for that year at the federal level. States have jumped on the STEM bandwagon, and a reasonable estimate might be that the country spends approximately $5 billion a year in direct funding.

Will the money be spent wisely? Will the programs be successful?

Let’s assume that 50% of a population is composed of people at or above the average mental acuity and intelligence-type needed to handle mathematical concepts (mathematics being a fundamental tool of science and engineering). But not everyone who can do math wants to do math, and you don’t want people uninterested in their professions designing elevators, airplanes, heart valve devices, and the like. So, if we further assume that 50% of the top 50% want to go into technical disciplines, then we end up with only 25% (50% x 50%) of the population qualified for work in STEM-related disciplines.

In other words, 25%, or one in four, might be a natural limit to the technical supply pool no matter how much we spend in STEM promotion and training. For further guidance on this, we can turn to the National Center for Education Statistics. In 1971, the percentage of bachelor degrees awarded to STEM disciplines was 16.1%. In 2014, it was 17.1%. During this time period the average was 16.7%. A high of 21.8% was reached in 1986. These are important statistics, because in the past five to ten years, STEM funding and efforts have not impacted the STEM graduation rates.

STEM promotion may increase minority and female participation in technical fields, and reaching the 25% mark might come from these groups. However, in the case of female students, many STEM activities don’t allow boys to participate. This tendency in education to discriminate against boys across many program has had the effect of less boys going to college. So, the whole affair may be a wash in terms of absolute numbers.

The 25% STEM talent limit would apply regardless of a country’s economic environment. However, poor countries don’t have the labor demand for STEM talent, but technologically advanced countries, like the U.S., require greater than their native 25% supply. That leaves immigration as the only other answer to high-tech employment needs. But immigration, like education, is something the U.S. doesn’t do smartly.

On a daily basis, I see many students taking technical courses who are incapable of mastering the minimum requirements. However, a student who fails at getting a degree in electrical engineering may have made a great electrician, if only he or she wasn’t steered in the wrong direction by politicians, educators, and parents.

STEM promotion as an end goal does have other detractors. The bottom line is for politicians to quit micromanaging, for parents and students to set reasonable academic and career expectations, and for educators to offer other training that best meets the needs of the vast majority of students, not the needs of the education industrial complex. That means a little more training in how to calculate a mortgage payment and a little less training in geometric proofs.

Ironically, studies of high school students who claim they like STEM courses show science and math favorability ratings mostly in the  50% to 70%  range. But talk is cheap. From these numbers, it looks like regardless of enthusiasm, only one in six students, maybe one in five at best, have historically completed STEM degrees.

It looks like STEM initiatives may turn out to be just another waste of money, spearheaded by the Department of Education and executed by a self-serving education industry. This explains why, soon after President-elect Donald Trump picked Betsy DeVos to be the next education secretary, some complained on social media that Trump should have left the position vacant.