Can a K-12 focus on STEM fill the STEM Pipeline?

While the theme from Silicon Valley tech giants that a STEM gap has gripped the nation has been revealed (washingtonpost.com, 2013) for what it is (businessinsider.com, 2013), their ploy for an increase in H-1B visas (brookings.edu, 2013) undermines the real and present lack of STEM-trained U.S. workers. Sadly, this is nothing new.

As far back as 2007 the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) had been warning that "our nation needs to increase the supply and quality of 'knowledge workers' whose specialized skills enable them to work productively within the STEM industries and occupations." (doleta.gov, 2007). And that, "It will not be sufficient to target baccalaureate and advanced degree holders in STEM fields."

In the April 2007 report, The STEM Workforce Challenge, the DOL states that a "pipeline" of STEM-educated citizens from vocational workers to Ph.D.s is necessary. Specifically, this pipeline starts with the STEM education in the K-12 system and "for youth moving toward employment."

However, that was in 2007. Has the so-called pipeline been fixed? According to a new report from U.S. Department of Commerce (DOC), no.

According to the study STEM: Good Jobs Now and for the Future, employees with a STEM education earn up to 26 percent more than non-STEM educated employees (esa.doc.gov, 2011). This premium salary holds true for STEM educated employees even if they aren't employed in a STEM field. Good news for STEM majors, but this premium salary has led some industry commentators to propose that there may be a gap in the nation's STEM-workforce driving up wages exactly as the DOL had warned.

Indeed, the DOC reports that only 1 in 18 U.S. workers are STEM workers. EDUCAUSE Review also reports that in 2012, less than 1 percent of all Advanced Placement (AP) tests were in computer science (educause.edu, 2013).

Despite the DOC's reports of a low unemployment rate in STEM fields and the increased job security which comes with a STEM education, vocational students, minorities and women are still underrepresented in the field of STEM and the "STEM Pipeline" still runs dry.

Could this early-level dismissal of STEM subjects by students have something to do with the current method of STEM education? According to Bradley University's Kevin Finson, probably.

"From the society perspective, I do think that we need to work to encourage early on these youngsters' interest in pursuits in STEM fields," Finson said. "When we detect that they have some interest or some talent in it we should help them develop it instead of shuffling it aside or ignoring it."

For just this reason, Finson has been involved in the National Science Foundation grant program at Western Illinois University. The program targets middle school students in an attempt to get them involved in STEM subjects.

"We figured that was the critical time when they were starting to really make the decision in what they were going to do programmatically in high school and in college," he said.

As an educator, Finson is leveraging a new museum as well as local science groups to help keep students engaged in the sciences and math.

"We just opened a new museum here in town, so we have a lot of leverage to encourage people to come and see science and societal things together and get really hands on deeply involved" Finson said. "We also have local mineralogy and rock groups and local astronomy groups, and we have groups that have local environmental interests."

According to Finson, students at this level may begin having an interest in STEM subjects, but without educators there to support the interest, students can wonder.

"Once we get students' interest into that so-called pipeline, I think there are more things that we can do", he added

One of the things educators can do is highlight the similarities between various STEM subjects. According to Finson, students who find biology fascinating may lose interest in the classroom. However, if the students are shown the connections biology has with, for instance, engineering and the new world of bioengineering, they may find a career in STEM.

" I think we need to find ways to more effectively and more frequently help students see those interconnections and how the different STEM disciplines really do work together to help us solve problems and move forward."

"I think it is both societal and a programmatic effort to systemically change and move forward from where we are at to where we want to be," Finson said.

Interview with Professor Kevin Finson of Bradley University by Jamar Ramos, TechSchool.com, May 2013
EDUCAUSE Magazine, Closing the Gap: Addressing the STEM Workforce Challenges, 2013 http://www.educause.edu/ero/article/closing-gap-addressing-stem-workforce-challenges
U.S. Department of Labor, The STEM Workforce Challenges, 2007, http://www.doleta.gov/youth_services/pdf/STEM_Report_4%2007.pdf
Economics & Statistics Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce, STEM: Good Jobs Now and For the Future, 2011 - http://www.esa.doc.gov/Reports/stem-good-jobs-now-and-future
Businessinsider.com, The Real Truth About the STEM Shortage that Americans Don't Want to Hear, Walter Hickey, 2013 - http://www.businessinsider.com/the-real-truth-about-the-stem-shortage-that-americans-dont-want-to-hear-2013-5
Washington Post, Study: There may not be a shortage of American STEM graduates after all, Jia Lynn Yang, 2013 - http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-04-24/business/38783974_1_stem-more-foreign-workers-epi-study
The Brookings Institution, H-1B Visas and the STEM Shortage, Jonathan Rothwell & Neil G. Ruiz, 2013 - http://www.brookings.edu/research/papers/2013/05/10-h1b-visas-stem-rothwell-ruiz

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