Class Struggle

Educators hope STEM bug bites more students

By Jay Mathews
Thursday, October 7, 2010

I know how high school course choices affect college chances, but I know much less about how they affect lives. For that kind of advice, I rely on some experienced career specialists, such as Ann Emerson of Stafford County public schools. She sent me a refreshingly cool appraisal of the red hot national campaign to expand math and science education. She explains why we are having such trouble persuading students to pursue careers in chemistry, psychometrics, physics, biotechnology and related pursuits.

The full term for this most fashionable of all 21st-century education trends is STEM, short for science, technology, engineering and math. STEM advocates want to put more emphasis on these subjects in school. They want to train more teachers in these disciplines and produce more professionals in these fields. The Obama administration loves the idea. The Bush administration loved it. Colleges, from the biggest to the smallest, look for STEM grants. STEM is popular from sea to oily sea, from the mountains to the prairies, to every school board in every town in the nation.

The only people having difficulty getting excited about STEM are the students who must take and pass the courses if the movement is to succeed.

Emerson says it is important for career specialists such as herself "to convey that STEM is not a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Here in the U.S., people choose science careers because they are profoundly curious and excited about the way science and technology improve human existence. There are plenty of frustrations, and not a lot of financial rewards, at least not the type that U.S. kids are aware of, based on their familiarity with the income of sports and entertainment figures."

If your child has been bitten by the STEM bug, fine. There will be college bills to pay, but graduate school won't be as financially painful as law or med school because universities need cheap labor in labs and many large financial interests are supporting the STEM pipeline. Many people with math and science training still choose business and finance because the financial rewards are so much greater. And some who start on the STEM track are scared off. I did a story about freshman year at Georgia Tech that reawakened old nightmares about being back in college, at exam time, having learned nothing.

The saving grace of STEM for the rest of us, Emerson says, is the chance to acquire in high school (for most people their last chance) something she calls STEM literacy.

"Many of our compelling health and environmental problems do not respond to knee-jerk pronouncements or simplistic formulas," she said. "We need people who contribute innovation in science and technology, but we need far more people who can understand nuances, spend the difficult time it takes to formulate priorities and be aware of the unintended consequences of short-sighted fixes."

Want some fun? Go to the Labor Department's Occupational Outlook page and find the interest profiler, which tells you which of your interests fits best with productive work. One of the six main characteristics is "investigative," for people with strong curiosity or analytical skills. Only about 10 percent of jobs have that trait as a No. 1 indicator, and that includes everyone from Stephen Hawking to your dentist.

High school science courses are still good for you. I confess I dropped physics to take a student council period instead. I have since learned it was the only course I had in high school that would have forced me to think, really think, rather than memorize. That lack of mental exercise has been a problem for me ever since then.

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