How to prepare for science and technology fields

Today a college education is not a luxury but necessity. It is difficult to get a good job unless you go to college. There are more job opportunities in every country but it depends on your field of study and which school that you graduated from. There are differences in salaries between students who study Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) and students who graduate in Art, Drama, History, Literature, or Social Study. There are differences in salaries between students who attend top universities and students who go to lesser known universities. To ensure that you will have good career in the future, selecting fields of study in good universities is very important.

When I first taught in India in 2004, students there told me about a popular phrase: “No college, No dating; No IT degree, No married.” At that time I laughed but after some thinking, I found it logical. First, if you do not go to college, you do not have good future; and no girl will date a person without a future. Second, since IT is the best job in India, no girl will marry you if you do not have a good job. This expresses how important go to college is because it is the key for dating a girl, getting a job in IT, and also getting married. Students also told me that the first thing Indian parents often ask a man who wants to go out with their daughter is what college he goes to. The top colleges such as Indian Institutes of Technology means the man is smart and have good future; but if he studies IT, his future is guarantee.

Today there are more job opportunities in STEM because the whole world is transitioning from the Industrial Age into the Information Age where technology dominates everything. As the world is more global and connected, technology is creating more job opportunities, knowledge and skills are becoming key assets instead of capital. In the industrial age, capital is important to build businesses and manufacturing products using natural resources such as oil, gas and minerals. But with technology, everything changes, as innovation is the product of the brain power. In the Industrial age, the richest people are people who control finance, bank (Capital) and natural resources (Oil, gas, minerals) or manufacturing (cars, engines, machineries etc.). But today the richest people are mostly in technology areas (Hardware, software, telecommunications etc.) All of them (Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg etc.) build companies based on technology knowledge from a very humble places with little money (In the garage or university dormitory.)

When I lecture about STEM in Asia, people often equate that to Medicine, Dental and Pharmacy. Traditionally these are great fields to study but these are not the only choices. There are many excellent fields in STEM areas and understand which field to select requires some investigation on the future job opportunities. For example, Actuarial science, computer science, statistics and analytics, software engineering, electronics engineering, information system management, biotechnology, and medical technology are just few examples of STEM fields that can lead to excellent careers. Today experienced software engineers can make as much as medical doctors. Software people, who work for successful startups that become giant companies such as Google or Facebook, could become millionaire or billionaire within few years.

For many years of teaching in Asia, I found that most students did not have good understanding about STEM fields or what is happening in the industry. Students did not have enough information to make good choices and parents did not have knowledge of the global job market. There were many students who are interested in STEM fields but do not know how to prepare. Basically STEM fields require students to prepare early. This means students must have strong basic skills such as reading comprehension, critical thinking and problem solving. Today high school students do not read much so they do not develop good reading habit. That is a mistake! Most STEM fields require a lot of reading, especially scientific reading because there are many things they need to know to build a solid foundation. Few years ago when I was in China, a professor told me: “Today young people do not like to read. They are afraid to read book that has few hundred pages; they prefer to read comic books like “Japanese Anime” or books with a lot of pictures. Their thinking is not deep enough to comprehend profound concepts. The lack of deep thinking leads to failure in developing critical thinking, which is essential in scientific areas. Without critical thinking, they cannot develop good logic to solve problems and innovate. That is why we did not do well in STEM fields and could not catch up with the West. Basically we only learn to copy things without develop anything.”

To succeed in STEM fields, students must have strong basic foundation before going to college. It means they should read more to develop good reading habit. But reading alone is not good enough. They must read books that inspire them; books that make them think; books that make them wonder, to develop critical and logical thinking. In my classes at Carnegie Mellon, there are many Asian students. Most have excellent grades in high schools, highest test scores but their key weakness is many do not read well. My “New technologies in the global world” course requires students to read about 20 articles per week or about 150 pages. The textbook has 22 chapters, each is about 70 pages and students must read 2 to 3 chapters per week or 200 pages. That means they must read 300 to 350 pages per week and understand them well. Since each chapter is built upon the previous chapters, without a comprehensive knowledge, students may not pass the class. Students often complain: “Why do we have to read so many pages?” Can you summarize it to us? I told them: “When you go to work, would you tell your manager to give you less work? Or can you tell your customers that you will only code no more than 100 lines of code a day? "

Reading is the key weakness of many students today due to television, movies, and the Internet. Many young people do not like to read book instead they prefer to watch movie or play videogames. What they do not realize is movies, television, and videogames make them more passive while books allow them to think and to actively imagine. In a time where most people are consumed by technological advances, it is essential that students must read constantly to develop a good reading habit to prepare for the future. STEM fields have many new scientific terminologies and profound concepts, without good reading habit it would be impossible to comprehend these terms in a short time. I recommend that students, especially high school students to spend at least half an hour of reading every day to expose themselves to different styles of writing and to learn new vocabulary. Having good vocabulary is the strong foundation that leads to the habit of reading because while reading books, especially scientific books, you will be exposed to many new words that you may not know. Basically knowing a lot of vocabulary early will help you to overcome this obstacle. Knowing more vocabulary also allows you to express yourself more eloquently thus improve your communication skills and presentation skills. Reading more books, especially books that require you to think deeply will increase the creativity in the brain, especially at a young age. This is beneficial as it is the foundation of critical thinking and helps you to develop the problem solving skills.

According to a study at university of Pennsylvania, Students who do well in college; students who have highest grades in every university all share a common character: They all have good reading habit since they were young. The author, Dr. Stanberry concluded: “It is well recognized that those who take an active involvement in reading all have higher grades in exams, higher intelligence, and more profound knowledge than those who don't. Reading enhances knowledge by making them to use the brain actively and causing them to think more and therefore enhancing their intelligence. Since books help improve both memory and concentration, I can conclude that reading makes it easier to study a subject and retain the knowledge received from the subject, thus directly making students more knowledgeable and more successful later in life.”

STEM fields can be very challenging because they require a comprehensive knowledge of many things. But this challenge can be overcome if students have a good reading habit. For many years of teaching, I found that students who did not do well in STEM classes were often do not read well and have poor vocabulary. They spent several weeks struggled with scientific books using dictionary than gave up. Students who did well rarely use dictionary, they already have strong foundation and rich vocabulary in their mind. They understand the materials well and eager to learn more because they are ready to learn. If a high school student ask me: “How do I prepare to go to college and study STEM fields? My advice is: “Develop a good reading habit by reading, reading, and more reading.”


  • Blogs of Prof. John Vu, Carnegie Mellon University
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