Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Do we really need more STEM graduates?

If there's one thing we can all agree on it is this: America needs more science, technology, engineering, and mathematic (STEM) graduates, right? Well, that may not actually be the case. A study released last month suggests that the STEM graduate shortage may be a myth. From that study:
"Our review and analysis of the best available evidence indicates that the supply of STEM-potential and STEM-educated students has remained strong and appears to be quite responsive to standard economic signals of wage levels and unemployment rates."
In other words:
"We're fine guys, we don't need you to get a STEM degree. Get your degree in something different. Have you considered fine arts?"
Ok, that may be a bit rough, but you get the point.

One response to this study, shared by Chemjobber on Twitter, says that the "Need for STEM graduates is indisputable". A headline which, of course, caught my eye. I'm a (to-be) STEM graduate and I certainly want a job when I graduate. However, I think the editorial itself is poorly written and fails to address the actual facts of the study. We all want to believe that investing in more STEM graduates is the right thing to do, but if the job market is full we need to be honest with ourselves. Making a statement like:
"After graduation, 43 percent of STEM graduates do not work in STEM fields."
followed immediately by: 
"The need for more graduates in STEM fields is indisputable"
is the exact opposite of being honest with ourselves. Listen, I wish there was a desperate need for STEM graduates. It would put me in an excellent position. Still, I've come to realize in the past months that the stories I was told of guaranteed job placement in high paying positions were just that: stories.

The author of this editorial does get one thing right, though - the definition of STEM is far too broad. STEM includes biologists, computer programmers, mathematicians, engineers (of every kind), chemists, physicists, and loads more. It's pretty tough to define a job market with such a huge population with any amount of detail.

So what do we need?
Ok, so if we don't need more STEM graduates then what do we need? Perhaps the answer is, oddly, a renewed focus on STEM education. However, by STEM education I don't necessarily mean handing out more and more STEM degrees. I mean a systematic change to the way we teach. What we need is a scientifically literate society. Not a society of scientists, mind you, but a society that understands the basic ideas of the scientific method. A society that will accept and promote science instead of fear and reject it.