T he acronym STEM enshrines one of the most important accomplishments of the 20th centuries – that of harnessing science, technology, engineering and mathematics to promote the common good of humankind in an interdisciplinary and applied approach. Rather than teach the four disciplines as separate and discrete subjects, STEM integrates them into a cohesive learning paradigm based on real-world applications. It is also one of the most abused acronyms in the English language, with various parties and organizations manipulating the concept to promote their agendas. There is no denying, however, that STEM awareness is exploding, especially as it concerns women and minorities, though funding and education are struggling to keep pace.


What STEM Isn’t

STEM is not a passing fad, nor is it a fast track to a life of leisure. Possessing a STEM undergraduate or graduate degree is no guarantee of success – competition for jobs, faculty positions, government appointments is stronger than ever.

What is Driving the Push for STEM Expansion?

What is driving the push for STEM expansion? In a nutshell it is concern that America is losing its technologically competitive edge. To put this advantage in perspective this in perspective, Robert Solow, who received a Nobel Prize in economics, demonstrated that well over half of the growth in United States output per hour during the first half of the twentieth century could be attributed to advancements in knowledge, particularly technology. For a fuller discussion of the history of STEM please download this file.

World War II

The awareness of the need for STEM focus evolved toward the end of World War II when President Franklin D. Roosevelt requested that George W. Bush’s father Vannevar Bush investigate how those technologies developed to win the war be transferred to society so that it may prosper from them. Among other things, his recommendations led to the creation of the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 1950 “to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense…”. The NSF is the funding source for approximately 21 percent of all federally supported basic research conducted by America’s colleges and universities. The Cold War continued to drive the need for new technologies, particularly those related to weapons productions.

National Interests

As one example, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory was established in 1952 at the height of the Cold War to meet urgent national security needs by advancing nuclear weapons science and technology. Another spike in interest came after the Russians launched the satellite Sputnik. Less than a year after the Sputnik launch, Congress passed the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) that poured billions of dollars into the US education system, essentially increasing spending on education by a factor of 6 in a short 7 year period. A related reaction was the creation of NASA, culminating with the successful landing of American astronauts on the Moon in 1969. By now, the technological spinoffs of the Apollo program are legendary.

Over time expenditures on basic science research decreased with respect to applied research, especially after the 9/11/2001 attack on U.S soil. All the while concern was growing that the U.S. was falling behind in terms of global competitiveness, especially with the growth in the sheer number of inexpensive but well educated STEM workforce in Asia. In response to this the United States House of Representatives and the United States Senate commissioned the National Academy of Sciences to conduct a study of America’s competitiveness in the newly evolved global marketplace.

The review of America’s competitive position was released in 2005 in the form of a report that has become popularly referred to as the “Gathering Storm” report after the first line in its title. The recommendations in the report lead to the America COMPETES Act, which recommended “ To invest in innovation through research and development, and to improve the competitiveness of the United States”. This legislation was signed in 2007 by President Bush and reauthorized by President Obama in 2010.

Further increases in government STEM funding are stymied by the irreconcilable differences in philosophies between the two major U.S. political parties. Private enterprise, genuinely alarmed by the prospect of an undertrained work force, is behind many of the new STEM initiatives. Colleges across the country have also responded by developing in-house and often multidisciplinary STEM programs.

Hopefully because you are fascinated by one or more of the STEM disciplines. If that is not enough, then consider these various factors promulgated by the STEM Education Coalition

  • “60 percent of U.S. employers are having difficulties finding qualified workers to fill vacancies at their companies.”
    — Council on Foreign Relations
  • “STEM occupations will grow 1.7 times faster than non-STEM occupations over the period from 2008 – 2018”
    — Office of Science and Technology and Policy
  • “In the current overall employment market, unemployed people outnumber job postings 3.6 to one. In the STEM occupations, job postings outnumbered unemployed people by 1.9 to one.”
    — Change the Equation
  • “STEM employment is expected to grow 17% between 2008 and 2018, far faster than the 10% growth projected for overall employment”
    — Change the Equation
  • “At all levels of educational attainment, STEM job holders earn 11 percent higher wages compared with their same-degree counterparts in other jobs.”
  • “The top 10 bachelor-degree majors with the highest median earnings are all in STEM fields.”
  • “The average annual wage for all STEM occupations was $77,880 in May 2009, significantly above the U.S. average of $43,460 for non-STEM occupations.”
  • “In 2010, the unemployment rate for STEM workers was 5.3 percent; for all other occupations, it was 10 percent.”
    — National Governors Association Center for Best Practices
  • “47 percent of Bachelor’s degrees in STEM occupations earn more than PhDs in non-STEM occupations.”
  • — Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce
  • Over the past 10 years, growth in STEM jobs was three times as fast as growth in non-STEM jobs.”
  • — U.S. Department of Commerce

In spite of all of the discussion about STEM there is still a raging debate about whether there is, or will be, an actual shortage of STEM workers in the near future. Both sides of the debate persuasively argue their position, but in reality the future is unknowable. It is, however, nearly certain that STEM graduates would continue to fair better in the marketplace than their counterparts in the arts or humanities.

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