STEM education

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According to a global report, many companies will have difficulty hiring technology skilled workers in the next five years because there are higher demands in the job market, far exceed the current supply. Some sectors such as finance, banking, and healthcare were often slow to adopt technology but now begin to accelerate their automation to improve profits and hiring more IT skilled workers. The report warns that technology skills gap is the single factor that could slow down the global economy recovery and countries that cannot solve this problem will not be able to recover in this global competitive world. The author wrote: “To improve the economy, governments must issue policy for aligning their country's education with technology careers to fill these high-demand jobs. Having a high priority on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education is absolutely necessary.”

The report reveals that there are over 4 million new technology jobs in the global market that cannot be filled and that number could grow up to 12 million in the next five years. Even countries with large population like India and China also have technology skilled shortage. An Indian government officer explains: “We cannot develop fast enough IT workers for our own country. Many highly skilled workers are leaving for better jobs in the U.S and Europe and we are losing this “brain drain” battle.”

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Despite all of these favorable evidences, students enrolling in STEM fields are still limited to a few. So why are so many students ignoring the prospect of having good jobs and prosperous career? Last summer when I was in Europe, I found many unemployed college graduates worked in restaurants and hotels so I asked them: “Do you know that there is a shortage of technology workers in your country and there are many job openings?” To my surprise, they answered: “We know that but we cannot study science and technology because it is very difficult.” The notion that STEM fields are difficult has prevented many young people to enter these good paying careers because they do not have proper guidance and supports. A student who washed dishes in the restaurant told me: “I am not very good in Math. I get low grade in high school so I selected business administration in college because it is easier. However due to the financial crisis, business graduates cannot find jobs so I have to work in something that has nothing to do with my education.”

When I mentioned this to a professor, he explained: “It is a fact that students who are not good at math and science in high school should not studying STEM.” I asked him: “Why is math becoming the factor that prevents students to study STEM fields? Are there any remedial courses in math that help them to rebuild these skills?” He shook his head: “If they are not good in math, we suggest that they select something else in college rather than STEM.” Another teacher explained further: “European education systems divide students into certain categories in high school depending on how good they are in certain subjects. If they are not good in math, we place them in natural science. If they are not good in natural science then we place them in literature and social science. Students who study STEM in college are often very good in math and science, while others can go to college as a general category with broad knowledge about everything so they can pursue any careers that fit them.”

I was surprised because classify students early in high school is a concept dated back in the 17th century in Europe. It divided students into categories to place them in appropriated universities because at that time there were only few universities and each focused on limited subjects. Today there are thousands of universities; most have hundred fields of study so this concept is obsolete. By limiting students learning based on high school performance does not consider that students can overcome their weaknesses and do well in whatever they are interested in. Even students who do not have good foundation in high school but with proper supports they can still do well in college. This archaic system does not give students a second chance by creates a “math and science filter” with tough math and science classes to eliminate students before they go to college. It also makes students fear of science and math and limits them to pursue good career in this technology age. I told them that there is no such classification in the U.S as students can select any field that they are interested in when they go to college. If they study STEM, they will receive many supports to help them succeed. My friend lamented: “We do not have such supports; we have been followed this system for over hundred years, no one ever asking why? We just follow the tradition.”

Even today, many students do not have enough information to select the right fields of study in college. Some enter college without proper guidance about career planning. Many of students and their parents still believe that STEM fields require hard work and special talent that may not suit them well. A mother once told me that she did not want her children to work all day in front of the computer as she saw computer work is like playing videogame. Many parents advise their children to pursue a field of study based upon their past experience. A father once told me that when he was young, getting into a Medical school is his dream. Although he did not get in, he still wanted his children to study medicine regardless of their interests or abilities. Since parental support and encouragement are the most influencing factors in children's education, it is important to start with them about STEM education and the changing job market by providing them with proper information. Another issue that I have observed in some countries is their Science and Technology courses were developed many years ago that focused mostly on theories but not practical enough to meet today's works. These courses do not encourage students to interested in STEM fields because the lack of qualified teachers and textbooks etc. There are computer courses that give students impression that technology means the ability to do basic computing and Internet browsing or STEM education is mostly intensive laboratory work and scientific methods that are very hard.

To address these misconceptions, we need to focus on STEM education for students at all levels, from elementary to college. We need to develop more teachers who are interested in STEM fields. The essentials of a good STEM education should start with the preparation of STEM teachers from elementary to college. To increase students' interests in STEM careers, the training STEM teachers should be the highest priority. Only with well trained and well paid teachers, we can improve the education system to develop a high number of college graduates in STEM fields who will contribute to the economy. In this information age where knowledge and skills are major assets and every business is becoming global business, we need to have a well-educated workforce. To motivate students to study STEM fields, a number of steps at various school levels should be taken and monitored closely. Students, teachers and school administrators at all levels should understand that STEM careers require hard work during preparation. Students who want to study STEM in high school should have the supports and guidance on courses in science and mathematics to ensure that they can succeed in college.

Most importantly, parents, teachers, and school administrators should increase their influences towards STEM careers. They need more informations about the need for science and technology knowledge in this technology-driven world; they should know more about STEM careers and global opportunities to better advise students on certain courses needed for pursuing career in STEM fields etc. Success in STEM fields requires both technical and soft-skills such as the ability to organize and think logically, creatively in problem-solving, communication skills and the ability to work in teams. To encourage students to develop a strong math and science foundation, we should eliminate the fear of math and science with coursework activities focusing on problem-solving skills rather than abstract theories that discourage students. I believe STEM education should be considered the highest priority in current education system, and by having meaningful preparation at all levels, we can meet the needs of a having a strong workforce in a technology-driven country.


  • Blogs of Prof. John Vu, Carnegie Mellon University
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