Focus on STEM education a no-brainer

by Lloyd Bentsen IV

Source: Dallas Morning News

If Fareed Zakaria has his way, the United States education system will continue to fail our children.

In 2012, on the standard international education test, American students ranked 36th among developed countries in mathematics, with a score of 481 out of a possible 1,000 and below the average score of 494. In science, U.S. students scored 497 out of a possible 1,000 and below the average score of 501.

By contrast, students in Singapore scored 573 in mathematics and 551 in science; Japan, Korea and parts of China scored at the top with Singapore.

Education reformers have recently turned their attention to STEM — the academic disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics — because of a lack of workers and a mismatch between STEM degree-holders and STEM fields.

In a recent column, Zakaria said he wants our education system to put as much emphasis on the arts as it does on science and math. Supporters of that idea have inserted the arts into STEM, cleverly creating the STEAM moniker for their cause. Dilution of a nationwide focus on STEM would only hurt that effort, which has received a lot of private, as well as public, funding.

STEM education is held in such high regard for good reason. According to the Commerce Department, over the past 10 years, the growth in STEM jobs outpaced growth in non-STEM jobs 3-to-1.

STEM workers make higher wages. Employers are clamoring for workers, and America needs more students in these areas if it hopes to keep up with global innovation. The growing STEM movement has been called the answer to poverty, gender discrimination and unemployment.

STEAM supporters argue that we need more than a basic knowledge of the sciences to spur innovation. We need the creativity, curiosity, critical thinking and the multitude of perspectives inherent in the arts to truly foster success.

Yet the focus on STEM vs. STEAM only obscures the bigger problem — that our education system is broken. An ever-growing “STEM gap,” which refers to the growing shortage of skilled workers, doesn’t simply showcase the lack of students obtaining science- and technology-related degrees. It also highlights the disturbing lack of student engagement in science and technology careers.

Today, there are 277,000 STEM job vacancies, and it is estimated that there could be 2.4 million vacancies by 2018. Moreover, the number of degree-holders in these fields does not match actual employment data. For example, there are over 12.1 million STEM degree-holders in the United States, but employment in those fields in 2012 was just 5.3 million.

The STEM vs. STEAM debate wastes time and energy we could be using to help our students in school right now. Students who pursue more technical degrees, particularly those in STEM fields, have better job security than their counterparts. Pair that with the bleak employment rates for recent college graduates and the growth in STEM fields, and encouraging our children to pursue these fields seems like a no-brainer.

The nature of work and requirements for success may change from generation to generation, but so does technology. Without a firm grasp on the basics of scientific thought and processes, how could we expect our children to continue leading the world in technological innovation?

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