Let’s Talk About the Failure of STEM

The amount of dollars spent on STEM education is staggering. However, I have to raise the question: is it worth it?  According to the After School Alliance, the White House budget provides $1.4 billion for the STEM Education Directorate at NSF to accelerate STEM education and workforce development, with the hope being to help ensure the U.S. science and technology workforce reflects the nation as a whole. ¹ You read that right—$1.4 BILLION dollars!  Where and when will we see the return on that investment?  I’m not sure that in our lifetime we will. We continue to spend billions of dollars on STEM, and it has barely made a blip on the screen toward the workforce we need.  

Even though we’ve seen an increase in population, we haven’t seen an increase in the number of people selecting engineering positions in proportion to how many STEM people we need. 

For example, since Title IX, women have made some gains in science and engineering. “They’ve gone from representing just 8 percent of STEM workers in 1970 to 27 percent in 2019. But men still dominate, making up half of all U.S. employees but 73 percent of the STEM workforce.”² In addition, according to the National Science Foundation, “Between 2011 and 2021, the STEM workforce grew by 5.9 million, from 29.0 million to 34.9 million” (a modest increase). STEM workers as a percentage of the total workforce also increased, from 21 percent in 2011 to 24 percent in 2021.³

In spite of spending billions of dollars on trying to convince people to pursue STEM education, it’s not increasing at the rate we need. People realize they can spend four to five years in college (and in reality, the answer’s really six to eight) and study to be an engineer and work their tails off, or they can go a relatively easier route and study something like international business. The National Center for Education Statistics data shows that at least three times the number of students graduate with a bachelor’s degree in business than do so with an engineering degree in the United States.⁴ That’s much less work, they still get a degree, and they’re rewarded pretty much the same. Kids aren’t stupid!

In terms of STEM, once again, people are choosing the easy path instead of the more challenging one. Easy is seductive!  But the easy path is NOT the path to growth. Think of it like this analogy, if you chose the easy path in sports and only run downhill, it’s not great for your knees, but let’s say you ran a six-minute mile downhill. However, when the real trials come and you run against someone else who has been running hills and all different terrains, guess who the bear’s going to catch and eat?

So, taking that metaphor, when life gets hard, if we actually have a big recession, if there is some sort of global conflict, and we need to rely on people for practical skills like STEM, we won’t have them because they chose what I would call the less rigorous or less challenging route. Now, suddenly we don’t have any scientists to invent things anymore. We don’t have engineers that are building things. Where’s my MacGyver to get me out of a jam?

The whole idea of how many billions of dollars that have been spent in advertising and trying to convince more people to go into STEM education is mind-blowing.  So why aren’t people taking that leap? There are several reasons.  First and foremost, I think is a lack of interest in the field. Not everyone has a strong interest in STEM subjects; other fields can easily be found more appealing.  Barriers are higher in many STEM fields; math may be a tough sell.

A second reason could be educational barriers. While yes, there is often a massive amount of funding, it doesn’t always go where it needs to.  Access to quality STEM education can be limited in some areas.  Right now, we are seeing an increase in the need for qualified teachers in general.  The need for STEM teachers is even greater!  We don’t have a large pool of candidates to choose from.

Finally, while great strides have been made to improve on the lack of women in STEM, it just hasn’t happened yet. STEM fields historically have been male-dominated and continue to be.  While there are ongoing efforts to encourage diversity and inclusion, we just haven’t crossed that line, yet.  From 2011 to 2021, an entire decade of spending, the percent of women in STEM jobs is up 3 percent.⁵  Typical study error rates are +/- 3 percent, so there may have been absolutely no impact made at all in the past ten years!

Bottom line, we need to continue our efforts to address these barriers and promote STEM careers, and a more diverse and inclusive workforce. There are viable solutions including outreach, mentorships, supportive workplace policies, curriculum reform, and professional development.  Or maybe we need to rethink the way those funds are being used.  Let’s break out of the historically ineffective advertising box and hit STEM students in the pocketbook.  What if we subsidized STEM students’ education by paying for their tuition if they maintain an A average and graduate within four years?  

Let’s set specific outcomes to achieve and if the current methods are not delivering – stop them, stop throwing good money after bad, and look for better ways to achieve the desired outcomes.

¹ https://www.afterschoolalliance.org/afterschoolSnack/The-White-House-budget-request-STEM-education-research-and_03-23-2023.cfm
²Caitlin McDermott-Murphy, “Women in STEM Need More than a Law,” June 22, 2022, accessed October 14, 2023, https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2022/06/women-in-stem-need-more-than-a-law/#:~:text=Since%20the%20law’s%20enactment%2C%20women,to%2027%20percent%20in%202019 .
³National Science Foundation, “The STEM Workforce,” January 30, 2023, accessed October 13, 2023, https://ncses.nsf.gov/pubs/nsf23315/report/the-stem-workforce .
 https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=37 .