A growing chorus of commentators is questioning whether employers and government officials are exaggerating the urgency of boosting STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education. The critics' arguments go something like this: The jobless rates for U.S. engineering and other technical occupations are close to record highs. Math expertise isn't the hot commodity it once was, especially in industries such as finance and insurance with the crash and burn of quantitative investment and risk management models. Meantime, technical grads churned out in India, China, Russia, and other countries are flooding the global market, depressing salaries and discouraging young Americans from entering those fields. Why invest in STEM education if the market won't bear it?
In an excellent USA Today story on the STEM debate, Lynne Munson, executive director of Common Core, a nonprofit that supports liberal arts education, takes the argument to an absurd extreme. "You want more physicists?" she asks. "Make sure kids are getting literature and history."
OK, most of us get that high schools and colleges aren't vocational institutions. But STEM education is about much more than job training; it's about preparing people to think and function in an increasingly technical society. And when it comes to jobs, STEM doesn't equal electrical engineering or Java programming or genetic research or any other single professional discipline. It's a basic competency that underpins a range of occupations--some of them not even conceived yet--in a range of industries.
The future of American business lies not just in high tech and finance, but also in other tech-driven industries such as energy, healthcare, pharma, transportation, and specialty retail. There, professionals with a solid STEM base--data analysts, researchers, chemists, statisticians, and engineers of all stripes--are more likely to secure high-paying futures than, say, French literature grads who can think fast on their feet.
We must resist going cold on STEM education based on the latest job stats. The unemployment rate for electrical engineers reached an all-time high in the second quarter, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, but every profession is under intense cyclical pressure, as shown by the overall U.S. unemployment rate of 9.7%. Are we to put all forms of education on the back burner in this brutal economy?
That doesn't mean we should pour taxpayer money indiscriminately into STEM education programs. Government officials who call for billions of additional dollars often do so at the behest of special interests.
In its most recent study of fourth- and eighth-graders, released in December, the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement found that U.S. fourth-graders ranked eleventh among 36 countries and U.S. eighth-graders ranked ninth among 48 countries in math. In science, U.S. students ranked only slightly above average. So the results, while not astounding, show that American kids are at least holding their own.
But we can't take our eye off the ball. In a session at the InformationWeek 500 Conference in September, some of the tech industry's leading CEOs will be discussing what the U.S. education system must do to improve this country's tech competitiveness. They clearly have a vested interest, but so do you. We hope you can join us there.
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