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By Dr. Tyra Hall-Pogar, Full-time Faculty Member, Amy Smith, Full-time Faculty Member and
Nikki Williams, Assistant Chair, Department of Science
Ever since the National Science Foundation coined the acronym STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), its future has looked very bright. Yet, there is still a sense of urgency in the United States to enhance education in STEM fields due to its potential to provide future economic prosperity and stability.
The U. S. is currently lagging behind the international field in these disciplines, and the expectation is that a continued effort to promote STEM education, will catapult our youth and future generations back to the top. An increase in the number of STEM professionals retiring, and the desire to attract and retain STEM students, are two major trends that emphasize the need for STEM majors. According to the U.S. Department of Education, only 16 percent of high school students are interested in a STEM career and have proven proficient in mathematics ("Science, Technology," n.d.). Overall, poor preparation for intensive college courses leaves many students wary of STEM related majors and careers. This could cause a shortage in professionals pursuing scientific and engineering related fields in the very near future. The ultimate hope behind STEM education is to provide more exposure to problem solving and solution based approaches that allows for more application to real-world situations.
Studies have also noted the under-representation of women in STEM careers although "women in STEM jobs earn 33 percent more than those in non-STEM occupations and experience a smaller wage gap relative to men" (Beede et al., 2011). This highlights the importance of trying to reach girls and young women at an early age and introduce STEM related topics. While some neuroscientific theories hypothesize that male and female brains are structurally and functionally different, many also feel that stereotypes and negative associations with STEM related careers could be a factor in women's choices. Helping girls create positive connections with science, technology, engineering and math can greatly impact their impression of these fields. Many nonprofit groups are fostering mentoring programs in the hopes of continuing this outreach.
Businesses, private organizations, and the government have all heavily invested funds to promote STEM education. Ultimately, STEM could provide an opportunity for students to integrate all parts of their education to focus on solving major issues we face in the 21st century and beyond, such as the utilization of natural resources or improving environmental quality. In order to successfully approach either the economic or political implications of these issues, it is important for individuals to become proficient in various STEM related topics. This type of circular approach in advancing the STEM initiative at the classroom level can be challenging. In particular, the technology and engineering concepts, but when successful, can inspire all ages to dream. The thought of making an idea from a science fiction movie into reality is exciting, and techniques such as multi-touch surfaces, biometrics, intelligent eyewear, and smart watches could hold the key to future inventions and learning. If this technology were harnessed and added into the classroom setting, these advancements could create a ripple of forward progress through many other disciplines. For example, the sequencing of the human genome was a profound advancement in the scientific community made with the aid of computer technology. Another example of how technology can aid in the advancement of learning in all phases of life and places in a career path, is demonstrated through the online world of education. It has revolutionized both the delivery of instruction as well as the way students learn.
It is important to embrace how STEM encourages us to teach students and ultimately make them better participants in the world we live in. In general education, it is critical to not only foster the specific skills needed to produce strong STEM talent, but also skills acquired in behavioral sciences, humanities, and the arts. Although STEM courses help build the gateway to a successful career in STEM fields, non-STEM courses can cultivate strong communication skills, which are also necessary components in any discipline. Having an academically balanced general education helps to create students that are well-rounded, creative, and engaged critical thinkers. This balance will not only help produce the future scientists, mathematicians, and engineers, but also writers, actors, musicians, and historians. These are skills that not only make students employable, but lifelong learners.
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