Why is this the right time to take up STEM?

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"STEM is more than a school subject...." - Obama

While I was researching for this article, I stumbled upon a blog, which read: “If Susan can learn physics, so can you.” This is the tale of a girl who had never studied physics and had not learned anything beyond sixth grade math just because people told her she was not a ‘math person’. It was only during her undergraduate philosophy course that she discovered the joy of learning physics, and it changed the course of her life forever!

 
 

“Like most of us, I had heard throughout my life that math and physics were really difficult. If you weren’t “smart”, you shouldn’t even bother trying to learn either, people would say,” Susan J. Fowler writes in her blog, Fledgling Physicist.

This might be the story of millions of people today, who aren’t inspired or motivated to learn STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) at an early age. They end up studying humanities or arts just because they were told they were not good enough for the subject. “That is one of the biggest, most hurtful, and most destructive lies anyone can perpetuate,” Susan adds.

“…there are so many people out there, like me, who were told at some point that they weren’t a math person, people who never had the opportunity to learn math or physics, and they are missing out on so much,” writes Susan, who is today an author and the Editor-in-Chief of Increment, a digital magazine dedicated to covering the state of software engineering and cloud computing.

 
 

As former president Barack Obama had remarked during the White House Science Fair, 2015:

“STEM is more than a school subject, or the periodic table, or the properties of waves. It is an approach to the world, a critical way to understand and explore and engage with the world …. “

 

So, why STEM now?

Right from the time when Thomas Alva Edison invented the electric light in 1878 to this day, we have seen many scientists, engineers and innovators raising new questions and raising the bar with their creative imagination and innovation, fueling us with products and services that have made our lives easier, better and faster, be it healthcare, government, education, manufacturing, transport, agriculture, mining, construction, and the list is endless. If not for people in STEM, we would not be basking in the marvels of science and technology today.

Ever wondered how tiring it would have been using animal appliances, just like the characters of the epic Flintstones series? But, yabba-dabba-doo, as Fred Flintstone would have cheered! Fortunately, we live in the 21st century and our children are born in an era where technology supersedes everything in life. This substantiates why it is absolutely important to catch our children young and teach them how STEM is everywhere today; how it has simplified things for us, so much so that we can’t think of a day or life without our smartphones or electricity.

It is apt to quote, Rosalind Franklin, an English chemist and X-ray crystallographer, who said:

“Science and everyday lives should not be separated”.

With each and every sector harnessing the benefits of STEM today, STEM plays an integral role in our lives. Undoubtedly, it is extremely critical that we motivate and support our children in STEM early on to be the ultimate beneficiaries and practitioners of this modern evil. Let’s look at the broader picture of why it is the right time to embrace STEM now.

 

1. Soaring Demand for STEM Professionals

“For our country and our companies to advance, we need talented young people to be involved. If we inspire them in science and engineering today, we secure our ability to innovate tomorrow.” — Patricia Elizondo, former Senior Vice President, Xerox Corporation
 

In 2009, the US Department of Labor had listed the 10 most wanted employees, out of which eight were the ones with STEM degrees in domains like accounting, computer science, electrical, mechanical, civil, and computer engineering; economics and finance.

The US Department of Commerce reports that STEM jobs are increasing at 17 percent, while the growth of non-STEM jobs is at 12 percent.

After nearly a decade, the demand for STEM jobs has more or less remained the same as we can see from CNBC’s round up for 2017. This signifies the flat and continued demand for STEM professionals. CNBC had also projected an employment increase of 14 percent or more in STEM between 2014 and 2024, all with a salary of over $90,000 annually.

The National Association of Colleges and Employers’ report states that over half the employers surveyed wanted to hire professionals with STEM degrees, making them the most-sought-after candidates in the job market.

The soaring demand for experienced STEM professionals continues as organizations are looking for ways to exploit the power of STEM. The number of job postings related to STEM on Indeed.com has increased substantially over the last 12 months.

The graph below clearly indicates the soaring trend.

 
 

2. Internet of Things: Impacting how we live and work

STEM has also made our lives easier and helped improve efficiencies in our houses, offices, buildings, surroundings and cars through the Internet of Things (IOT). The IOT helps connect devices to the Internet or to each other. It can be your smartphone, smartwatch, home appliances, lamps, headphones, machines and everything you can think of.

 

What’s more? As data is an ever increasing valued-asset across all industries, the IOT is making the process of data collection and processing a cakewalk through wireless sensor networks and artificial intelligence. Imagine when almost everything is connected, the IOT will allow businesses and industries such as energy, transportation, manufacturing etc., the ability to analyze and get insights from huge volumes of data and thus, enable our devices to take smart decisions within a fraction of a second.

For instance, BMW has harnessed IOT and is allowing owners to connect their vehicles to their homes with apps that can be used in the car and on the smartphone. Likewise, IOT services has also helped logistics major, DHL, get real-time visibility and insights from connected devices and increase operational efficiency and expedite pick-up and delivery process.

Did you know that your favorite coffee shop, Starbucks, also relies on IOT? Starbucks depends on mobile connectivity and ensures continuous uptime to support store transactions in case DSL network conks off. Let’s also take a look at how Boston Scientific, one of the major manufacturers of medical devices, is changing the way we look at healthcare through IOT. Boston Scientific pulls out patients’ data wirelessly from implanted pacemakers and communicates to doctors through mobile connectivity. Amazing, aint’ it?

So, with almost all the top companies and industries using IOT, the analyst firm Gartner, had predicted that there will be over 26 billion connected devices by 2020.

This means there is a huge demand for STEM professionals today and there will be even more vacancies in the future. In fact, all top companies, including Amazon, AT&T, Google, Cisco, Bosch, Dell, GE, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, Siemens, Oracle, Samsung, etc. are getting ready for the battle of interconnected devices.

It is therefore utterly important for educational institutions and academia to create a thriving environment that promotes IOT and related skills, and equip students with the right set of tools, knowledge and mindset to meet the challenges ahead. A major focus on STEM education is likely the key to inculcate innovation among young children and prepare them for a better future.

 

3. Huge job opportunities but are there enough skilled professionals?

The number of open positions in the STEM fields continue to grow each year. However, as the demand for STEM skills is going up steadily, there is a huge deficit for skilled professionals currently. Though STEM-based jobs are considered ‘hot and in-demand’, there are innumerable unfilled vacancies across the world because of the skill-set shortage.

A study conducted by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce points out that there will be 8 million STEM jobs in the US by 2018. However, 3 million vacancies might go unfilled due to the skill gap. This is an alarming number for our economy.

As the demand for the right skillset across industries continues to skyrocket, it is also important for companies to introduce formal training for updating skills of existing STEM professionals as well as aspirants. Whether it is core STEM or STEM-related fields, just being a STEM graduate is insufficient to take on the disrupting industry head on without proper training and direction.

Apart from training, do we realise how important it is to lay the right foundation at the right age? We all know that our nation has always had a widespread shortage of science and engineering workforce, and if this trend continues, we are likely to fall behind our major economic competitors. The only corrective step forward would be to improve the American K-12 education system in science and mathematics.

There is also an urgent need to introduce formal training in STEM for teachers who will mould our future generation. Did you know that 30 percent of the physics teachers don’t even have a major in the subject and they have not even earned a certificate to teach physics?

 

4. Strong demand boosts higher wages

Strong demand for STEM skills is boosting the wages for qualified professionals. This phenomenon is witnessing a revolutionary change in the job market.

According to a study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, STEM major professionals earn approximately $500,000 more in their lifetime compared to professionals with non-STEM majors. The study has also revealed that in the past three decades, salaries of STEM professionals have jumped by 31 percent, while for non-STEM professionals, the hikes were only 23 percent. This speaks volumes of how a career in STEM is not only challenging but also financially rewarding.

   

For instance, a look at the salary trend on Indeed.com reveals how much a computer scientist is compensated in the US, compared to a public relations manager, a non-STEM professional.

 

5. Predictions for STEM

Today's advanced STEM graduate could be tomorrow's world-class, world-changing scientist. - Todd Park, former CTO of the US and technology advisor for Obama

   

With STEM jobs providing an edge over non-STEM jobs, the US economy is expected to produce over 6 million STEM job openings by 2022. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there are over 209,000 vacant cyber security jobs in the US alone and the job postings have gone up by 74 percent in the last five years.

 

A report by the Foundation Center for Women in Business states that over 6.6 million vacancies in STEM jobs need to be filled by 2022, which outpaces the growth rate of non-STEM jobs by about 6 percent.

 

The BLS has projected that by 2022 there will be a huge demand for almost 3 million STEM professionals across all levels starting from R&D to teaching; design to practitioner; management functions to technologist. Therefore, to meet the demand of over 6.6 million professionals, a formal training of STEM graduates and a comprehensive commitment from the public and private sectors will be required.

 

Conclusion

"It's a passport to the world. Engineering is that base qualification that can take you anywhere. - Regina Moran, CEO of Fujitsu Ireland.



Susan’s story is a beautiful lesson for each of us to ponder over. When we strip away our children’s basic right by not inspiring or motivating them at an early age to enjoy the intricacies of STEM, its warning shines through. Our children might have the potential but we have failed to sow “the seed of interest” on time or dismissed them by saying that they are “not smart enough” for STEM subjects.

We may never know until we try! Take the case of the greatest inventor of our nation, Thomas Alva Edison, who was expelled from school because his schoolmaster thought he was “incredibly stupid”. His mother thought otherwise and homeschooled him. He attributes his success to his mother: “My mother was the making of me. She was so true, so sure of me….”

These stories are just not metaphors to draw inspiration from. They are about us and how we can use these stories to learn from them; to inspire and motivate our children tirelessly; because our strength is largely dependent on our scientific foundation. However, the country that gave the world the electric light, the airplane, the computer and the likes of Apple, Tesla, Google, Microsoft among others, is way behind our major economic competitors when it comes to STEM education.

According to the World Economic Forum, China produced 4.7 million STEM graduates in 2016; followed by India with 2.6 million; while the US had just 568,000. This figure is not something to be proud of. And if this trend represents the future, there could be a major STEM crisis in the US. We might need to be dependent on other countries for our STEM workforce.

But if we are to emerge as the global leader in STEM, we must carry the legacy forward of our scientists, innovators, risk takers and makers by motivating our promising students to take up STEM early on. If we want to see them leading our economy, we need to address the challenges of this ‘crisis-like situation’ immediately.

Science has been recognised as a national priority, but educators alone cannot play the role and change the trend. Parents and policy makers have to come forward and play an equal role in inculcating the importance and merits of STEM. This is a way forward to meet the soaring demand and address the skill gap to take the economic trajectory forward.

It is a given that the US economy needs skilled STEM workforce. Also, with the soaring demand comes better wages. These are reasons enough to inspire our children and ignite their minds to come up with solutions and address the challenges of climate change, international security, domestic and global health among others. After all, they are the future, but have we thought who will be the biggest beneficiaries?

 

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About Urmila Marak

Urmila, who is a Big Data and STEM enthusiast, works as a senior content manager with Mand labs. She is a believer in transformation of life and career through STEM. She can be reached on twitter @umarak.

Urmila Marak
Urmila Marak
Urmila, who is a Big Data and STEM enthusiast, works as a senior content manager with Mand Labs. She is a believer in transformation of life and career through STEM. She can be reached on Twitter @umarak.