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The STEM revolution

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Letter to the Editor:

Public education reform efforts, often focusing on testing, core curriculums, accountability, SPED, improving outcomes especially for disadvantaged students, have long been perennial features of public school discussions across America. Yet limited attention has been given to two related issues: a) career preparation for students not securing college degrees, and b) securing STEM-focused curricula (science, technology, engineering and math).

Increasingly it’s the STEM skill sets, both for high school and college graduates, that are required for higher paying jobs associated with the second Industrial Revolution initiated with the Computer Revolution several decades ago.

Like Connecticut generally, 70 percent of Norwalk’s high school grads go on to college. But six years later, less than one-half actually obtain college degrees. That means the majority of city high school students are entering the jobs market increasing demanding STEM competence but are armed with just traditional high school degrees and some college.

The STEM skills shortage is a worldwide phenomena. STEM skilled college grads have a very large advantage securing high paying jobs. Reportedly, their starting salaries, oft close to six figures, are twice those of students with “conventional” academic skill sets. In response, students with traditional college skill sets often secure master’s degrees in their specialties, thereby incurring additional college debt for skill sets at variance with the demands of our ever more technical world.

Minority students are especially disadvantaged entering the STEM skills set universe. Not only are they less likely to have STEM preparation in public school, but they are less likely to acquire such skill sets in college and less likely to have parents employed in STEM and/or technical trained careers. Relatively few STEM-trained minority students are found in our high tech industries. The well-known shortage of minority STEM-trained employees has important ramifications for increasing concerns about the increasing disparity in incomes.

The STEM skills revolution affects both current and tenured public school and college faculty and administrators trained in and with a vested interest in the “traditional curriculums” and tenure. And there are economic ramifications. Connecticut’s manufacturing sector largely revolves around the defense industry. Yet unlike neighboring Massachusetts and New York, our state does not have well recognized STEM-granting public colleges. Consequently, the defense industry has long imported STEM-trained employees and especially high-trained machinists. The ever-present state STEM employee skills shortage has been cited as a factor in our diminished defense industry.

The STEM revolution in education, both in public schools and at the college level, is likely to intensify. Foreign nations, especially those in Asia, have long focused their education efforts on technical subjects rather than the broader focus of America and Europe considered essential for well-governed communities. For example, several hundred thousand foreign students pursue STEM graduate studies in the United States. But they are almost always well-trained in STEM subjects while in college and grade school in their home countries.

Norwalk, like other communities, and public colleges generally, is invariably caught up in the STEM revolution. STEM-trained faculty typically demand higher salaries than their traditional counterparts and are in short supply. Shifting traditionally based faculty into STEM fields is no easy matter. And public unions are likely to protect their tenured faculty vested in the traditional curriculums. Moreover, the STEM revolution favors those students from two-parent professional families well versed in computer and technical fields, and puts greater demands on those students from families with parents not pursuing STEM or computer-demanding careers.

At day’s end, the STEM revolution requires additional public school funding at a time when there are demands for constraining public-funded school and college faculty and administrators already among the highest paid in the world. Politicians focusing on free college tuition as a relief from the increasing cost burdens associated with securing traditional college studies are largely ignoring the most important education issue – ensuring that all students are trained for the STEM revolution and the increasing high paying jobs requiring STEM skills.

Most of us understand the implications of the “computer revolution.” But the STEM revolution in education underpinning the “next high tech industrial revolution” promises to far overshadow the demands of acquiring computer skills. Those with strong STEM-based educations in public school and college will increasingly participate in the high paid STEM demanding jobs that are encouraging even greater income disparities.

Peter I Berman

Norwalk

5 comments

stem supporter August 11, 2016 at 10:37 am

Norwalk high schools put a very high emphasis on music and athletic participation, to the point where students don’t really understand that real early career opportunities lie in the technical fields. All students should be taking digital electronics and programming courses so they can have a context for choosing a tech degree in college. Instead, too many of our student go to college because of sports and choose degrees in the arts and humanities because that is what they know. They lose out on early career opportunities that allow them to pay off their college debt and build some equity – which then allows them more freedom later in their career to choose a more creative path if desired.

Sarah August 11, 2016 at 10:44 pm

Let’s not promote STEM at the expense of the liberal arts education.

I would love to see Norwalk schools embrace math and science, and to work hard to make the subject matter and the classroom experience more exciting and interesting. That would be worth it’s weight in gold. It should start early and continue through high school. Online Computer based programming/texts and worksheets are not the best way to engage and teach all learners. Give kids more hands on experience, in school activity-projects, real textbooks, real books, tactile learning, outdoor learning.

Sarah August 11, 2016 at 11:00 pm

IMO, to make a life-career out of digital electronics or computer programming, you need to have some level of interest. Having all students taking courses in this subject is not right for all students. Offering it, making it interesting and accessible, that sounds good.

Music, arts, athletics, and the liberal arts are invaluable to our culture, society, and to many individuals. No need to pit one against the other.

Yes if you don’t want to go to grad school and wish to be practical and pay off debt ASAP, it is wise to consider career & pay before you choose all of your courses and majors. However career and pay–these are moving targets. Even with “STEM” fields.

piberman August 12, 2016 at 2:10 pm

Bravo Sarah:
Only in America do we encourage high school students to go to college, take traditional academic subjects, accept staggering debts to pay salaries of overpaid college profs and then have difficulty finding a good job using their costly college skills. Meanwhile the rest of the world focuses on developing a highly technical skilled work force including those willing to work with their hands. So we know our future. Just ask laid off factory workers. Our “educators” are America’s real “privileged class”. But its our children who are being short changed across our great nation. Our politicians are focusing on “free college” but ignoring the larger issue – getting a real modern technical education to compete in the 21st Century. All of us have a vested interest in educating our children to compete vigorously in the modern world. Not the previous Century.

Sarah August 13, 2016 at 6:24 am

Bravo Peter I Berman: let’s throw out history so we can be blinded by the future!

But really, it seems I’ve struck a nerve here. To “reconcile”, I’ll say we have some agreement. (I’m pro science, math).

If we believe in the same America, then our lives should be dictated more by the belief that we can actually get some enjoyment and choice out of our lives. STEM is a great buzz acronym. But the truth is, we already have Science and Math in our K-12 schools, and don’t do a great job of making it interesting and engaging. I’m not blaming teachers; perhaps it is the curricula, poor funding, shifts from one fad to another, an obsession with how “poorly” the US is fairing on tests, thus the push to teach to the test. As I said in my previous post, I would like to see things made more interesting and engaging. Inspire a kid to actually like science, math, tech.

You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make them drink. But I suppose you can try. You can’t force someone to be interested in science, math, technology, engineering. But I suppose you can lead them to believe this is the only way to getting a “high paying job”.

But “high paying jobs” are a moving target. Not all science/math/tech/engineering jobs are high paying. Further, in the US and especially our metropolitan area, where cost of living (and for some, standard of living) can be so high, technology/engineering/science and math jobs, even factory jobs, that are mobile can migrate elsewhere, where cost of living is lower. And over time, we know that job markets change.

The commonly stated fear of competition with Asia, I have also found concerning. Asian countries have their own share of problems. I don’t buy into the–we need to model our educational system after Asia–concept. On the one hand we decry the civil rights problems, the dictatorships, the extreme poverty and social divisions, etc etc. On the other hand, they become our role-model for education. Really?

“Just ask laid off factory workers. Our ‘educators’ are America’s real world ‘privileged class'” That seems very politically pointed, and a manipulative oversimplification of who is to blame. Likewise with the blame on colleges, and supposedly over paid college professors.

I’m just saying, balance. Value is not just $$ value. Liberal arts, music, arts, they are an important part of our society. They hold intrinsic value.

Finally, I guess we will agree, and we will disagree.

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