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The STEM paradoxes: Graduates’ lack of non-technical skills, and not enough women

There’s a paradox in the scientific world, but it may not be the one you’re thinking about.

Here’s why.

On Monday, the New York Academy of Sciences announced that even though the global economy is generating a record number of scientists, it still faces a shortage in science professionals.

This is one of the “STEM paradoxes,” that the NYAS identified in a paper called “The Global Stem Paradox” that it released before an audience of about 500 U.N. delegates, scientists, high school students, heads of foundations and corporate philanthropists, many of whom were in New York for the United Nation’s General Assembly.

That paper, which was prepared by the FSG research group, didn’t bemoan the fact that there aren’t enough people studying science, technology, engineering and math. In fact, the report notes that we have sufficient STEM graduates. Nor did it say that there aren’t enough women studying those subjects.

No, instead, the report said that “While there are greater numbers of STEM graduates worldwide than ever before, STEM jobs continue to go unfilled.”

Specifically, there will be more than 1.2 million STEM jobs in the United States by 2018, but they won’t all be filled, because there won’t be enough qualified workers.

That’s the paradox — there’s a perception that not enough students are studying STEM, but the reality is that there are enough STEM graduates.

But these jobs go unfilled because there’s a gap between what graduates in STEM fields can do and the skills that STEM employers are seeking.

In other words, it’s not so much that STEM graduates don’t know how to solve technical problems, because, in fact, they do, but that these graduates lack the non-technical skills needed for the job.

That’s one of the points that Meghan Groome, the executive director of education and public programs at the New York Academy of Sciences, emphasized when we talked about the message delivered by the Academy’s 20-page white paper.

“The problem is universal,” Groome explained. “Students aren’t learning how to network, manage their time, or to work together.” These skills, Groome insisted, are those that students can learn if they take the right courses.

“Consider what happens in a science lab. Students develop a lesson plan, they study fun projects, and they learn how to critically analyze the problem in front of them. To do this, they have to work with their classmates, manage their time, and develop the so-called ‘soft skills’ that employers are seeking,” she said.

But, those ‘people skills’ are the skills that today’s students aren’t learning. Too often, students learn STEM subjects through rote memorization, rather than through creative thinking, according to Groome. Moreover, there’s been a sharp decline in the amount of hours spent teaching science in U.S. schools — the number of hours that elementary students spend on science is at its lowest point since 1988. These figures come from a 2012 paper prepared for the Noyce Foundation, an organization created to honor the founder of the Intel Corporation, Robert N. Noyce.

This decline is due, Groome believes, to the rise of standardized testing that focuses on math and English. “Standardized tests don’t even ask students about their science knowledge,” Groome said.

To remedy that, the NYAS suggests that schools create what it calls a strong “ecosystem” that will encourage schools, employers, nonprofits, and governments to work together to create an environment that acts as an incubator for developing these critical-thinking skills.

Creating this ecosystem is essential, Groome explained, because “everyone in the ecosystem needs STEM skills, from the head of the lab to the PhD student who is conducting the research to the lab technician who is setting up the equipment and even to the janitor who has to know how to create the clean lab that is essential for creating a dust-free lab environment.”

Moreover, Groome continued, the mentorship program is important because it shows kids that a scientist may not be who they think he or she is.

“Kids describe the typical scientist as like Albert Einstein — a crazy-looking, old white man doing something dangerous in a lab,” she said.

Needless to say, most kids can’t imagine that they’ll be the next Einstein.

However, Groome said, “after going to visit a lab, kids see that scientists look like they do — young, casually dressed, Puerto Rican, doing cool experiments.”

Changing the image of who is a scientist is one of the New York Academy of Sciences’s major aims.

This leads to the other, somewhat better known, STEM paradox.

Although women make up half of the U.S. workforce, they account for only one-fourth of STEM workers, according to the most recent data from the Census Bureau.

Even within the STEM occupations, women gravitate toward the social and life sciences, such as psychology and biology, where they account for 70 and 47 percent, respectively, of the workforce, and away from engineering and software development, where women account for just 13 and 22 percent of the workforce, respectively.

This skewed occupation profile for women isn’t surprising given their academic choices.

Women are studying STEM subjects in record numbers — nearly 300,000 bachelor’s degrees in science and engineering were awarded to women in 2012 according to the National Science Foundation — yet almost half of the women who earned a bachelor’s degree in science didn’t major in computer science or engineering but instead majored in psychology or biological sciences. Just 18 percent of computer sciences degrees and 19 percent of engineering degrees were awarded to women in 2012.

Furthermore, many of these female scientists follow a distressing pattern. They drop out of the labor force or move out of the science field.

A 2013 Census Bureau report found, for example, that nearly one in five female science and engineering graduates has dropped out of the labor force, while only one in 10 male science and engineering graduates has made that same choice. Among the women with a science or engineering degree who have continued to work, only 15 percent are employed in a STEM occupation, compared with 31 percent of their male counterparts.

This paradox arises because “women face a ‘chilling’ learning environment,” according to Groome.

“Women find that their teachers perceive that they’re not good at math, they aren’t encouraged to continue studying math, and they feel an explicit or implicit bias that they’re not as good as the men.” Almost all of the factors that drive women out of the STEM jobs are cultural, Groome said. These issues were identified in a 2011 study from the Department of Commerce.

Groome has a solution for this paradox.

“Let’s create a mentorship program that will allow women scientists to guide younger women into the field and help keep them there,” she suggested. “Let’s also collaborate on a global basis.”

That’s what the New York Academy of Sciences is doing through the Global STEM Alliance, which works with companies, such as Cisco and ARM, and countries, such as South Korea, Malaysia, Rwanda and the United States, to solve the Global STEM paradox.

These programs may not be enough to close the skills-based STEM gap and keep women scientists in the STEM workforce, but they can’t hurt.