In report after report, government panels, business groups, and educators have sounded the alarm about the state of training in science, technology, engineering, and math. STEM, they conclude, serves as a gateway to higher-paying jobs and is an important linchpin to a growing economy, and therefore, K-12 education in those fields must be improved.
In this vast echo chamber, it can be hard to separate fact from fiction. So Education Week reviewed dozens of research studies and interviewed experts on the challenge. The staff found that the conventional wisdom is generally correct—jobs in STEM are in demand and tend to be more highly paid—but the picture of the STEM pipeline is more nuanced than many of these predictions suggest.
For starters, there is a lack of precision in defining the careers that fall under the STEM heading, Education Week found. And there are holes in the research base on what K-12 officials can use to boost the number of students who specialize in STEM in college and go on to related jobs in the workforce.
Read on for answers to some commonly asked questions on the STEM pipeline.
What do we mean by STEM and the STEM workforce, anyway?
This is at the heart of the challenge. Most online sources say the term “STEM” was coined by a National Science Foundation official in the early 2000s, although some educators claim to have been using the term before then.
The important thing to know is that there is no standard definition for what constitutes a STEM career. And that complicates questions about labor-market data.
All definitions of STEM careers include those related to the core fields: engineers, physical and life scientists, mathematicians, and computer and information scientists. But even federal agencies disagree about whether to include other careers.
For example, the NSF counted social scientists in its most recent analyses of STEM careers but left out science and engineering managers, actuaries, and architects, among others, while the U.S. Department of Commerce did exactly the inverse.
Hence, estimates of the size of the workforce vary. The Commerce Department concluded that 9 million people worked in STEM jobs in 2015, while the NSF put the number at 6.7 million people that same year.
Many millions work in other related fields that typically require STEM knowledge and usually a bachelor’s degree, though not necessarily one in a STEM field. The NSF concluded that another 19.4 million people were in these “STEM-related” jobs, including those working in health care, as technicians, and as K-12 science and math teachers.
Is STEM a growth field for jobs? Do the jobs pay well?
In general, yes.
Among the core fields, STEM jobs are predicted to grow at a faster rate between 2014 and 2024 than jobs overall—though at a slower pace than over the previous decade. Federal analyses put the growth at about 9 percent to 11 percent compared with about 6.5 percent for non-STEM jobs. The figures are based on Bureau of Labor Statistics projections. The computer science field is projected to have the most new openings.
The key word here is “projections.” Some experts, like Michael Teitelbaum, a senior research associate at the labor and worklife program at Harvard Law School, cautions against viewing them as predictions because unknown factors, such as how much industry and the federal government invest in research and development, affect their accuracy. Economic factors can cloud the picture, too.
But for the most part, “the BLS’ crystal ball is pretty accurate, and they’ve done a really good job over the years of trying to pick the winners,” said Nicole Smith, the chief economist at Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.
Core STEM jobs in science and engineering do tend to pay more. The NSF found that the median salary of a STEM worker was more than double that of a non-STEM worker, while the Commerce Department found that in 2015, STEM workers had an average wage premium of 29 percent over those in fields unrelated to STEM.
It gets trickier when talking about jobs outside the core STEM fields—for example, in health care or as a technician—where broad occupational categories hide much variation. Some of the fastest-growing jobs are in these STEM-related fields—but they are not always the most highly paid.
How much education do you need to get a job in a STEM field?
By any accounting, research finds that the majority of core STEM workers—between 72 percent and 75 percent—hold at least a bachelor’s degree in a STEM field.
As the future of work changes, how are schools adapting? Read the latest news about the way schools are preparing students for tomorrow’s workforce, including articles, Commentaries, and special features.
Many more people hold degrees in a STEM field than work in one because they’re often hired in other fields. In fact, the Georgetown researchers argue that the demand for STEM degrees and certificates is really a demand for the competencies that training in those fields confers, such as complex problem solving, troubleshooting, and deductive reasoning.
Yet educational projections lag behind reality, and many blue-collar, STEM-related jobs, like those in health-care support and technology, will probably require some postsecondary training in the future, warns Smith of Georgetown. She and other Georgetown researchers have documented the “upskilling” of many jobs and industries that recovered after the 2008 recession: Many of them now require additional credentials.
Sometimes, they come in the form of industry-based certifications. That’s particularly the case in the information-technology space, where they are required for certain jobs. These credentials carry currency within their specific field but are often obtained outside of higher education.
What indicators predict whether students will go on to specialize in STEM in college?
Most of the research is based on correlations, which means the studies show that certain factors appear to be related to later STEM outcomes, but they cannot prove a cause-and-effect relationship.
A federally funded review of studies on STEM indicators found that student interest and confidence in STEM were strongly correlated with postsecondary success in those fields, followed by math or science achievement.
The importance of interest and confidence has led to widespread concern over students’ early experiences with STEM, especially for girls and students of color. If early STEM instruction isn’t interesting or engaging, it’s difficult to correct those impressions later, advocates argue.
Other research shows that achievement gaps dramatically affect the STEM pipeline.
A 2015 paper based on tracking four cohorts of 5th grade students in Florida for many years found that the black and Hispanic students who went straight into a four-year college after high school were actually more likely than white students to take at least one STEM course in their first year of college. And they were just as likely to complete a STEM degree—if they came with the same level of preparation and family support as their peers.
The problem was that too many never got there. Achievement gaps began early and were linked to more of those students of color dropping out of high school, failing to earn a standard diploma, and not matriculating.
The same research found that performance gaps based on gender were small throughout K-12 but widened once students reached college.
What can K-12 do to put more students on the path to STEM careers?
Much of this research focuses on high school coursetaking patterns.
Generally speaking, said Dylan Conger, a professor of public policy at George Washington University, studies consistently link taking more math and science classes—particularly advanced ones—to better high school test scores, persistence in college, and improved labor-market outcomes.
Requiring students to take a basic dose of the subjects can make a difference, too: The increase in required math coursework following the 1983 release of “A Nation at Risk,” the landmark report calling for sweeping changes in schooling, was linked to black students taking about a third more math classes and was also associated with a boost in their earnings.
To read more about the STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) workforce and its expected growth, see these reports and articles:
“Exploring the Foundations of the Future STEM Workforce: K-12 Indicators of Postsecondary STEM Success,” by Tricia Borman, Amie Rapaport, Andrew Jaciw, Christina LiCalsi, and Jenna Zacemy. Published by Regional Educational Laboratory Southwest/Institute for Education Sciences (2016).
“Employment Projections 2016-2026,” published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (2018).
“STEM,” by Anthony P. Carnevale, Nicole Smith, and Michelle Melton, published by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (2010).
“Recovery: Job Growth and Education Requirements Through 2020,” by Anthony P. Carnevale, Nicole Smith, and Jeff Strohl, published by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (2013).
“The Effect of Advanced Placement Science on Students’ Skills, Confidence, and Stress,” by Dylan Conger, Alex Kennedy, Mark C. Long, and Raymod McGhee Jr. (2018).
“Experimental and Quasi-Experimental Studies of Inquiry-Based Science Teaching: A Meta-Analysis,” by Erin Marie Furtake, Tina Seidel, Heidi Iverson, and Derek C. Briggs, in the Review of Educational Research (2012).
“The Labor of Division: Returns to Compulsory High School Math Coursework,” by Joshua Goodman, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research (2017), Working paper 23063.
“Effects of High School Course-Taking on Secondary and Postsecondary Success,” by Marc C. Long, Dylan Conger, and Patrice Iatarola (2017).
“Science & Engineering Indicators 2018,” published by the National Science Foundation (2017).
“STEM Jobs: 2017 Update,” by Ryan Noonan, U.S. Department of Commerce, Economics and Statistics Administration, Office of the Chief Economist (2017).
“The Hidden STEM Economy,” by Jonathan Rothwell, Brookings Institution (2013).
“Understanding the STEM Pipeline,” by Tim R. Sass, CALDER Working Paper No. 125 (2015).
“Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Education: Assessing the Relationship Between Education and the Workforce,” Government Accountability Office, GAO-14-374 (2014).
As far as improving students’ actual ability, one new study Conger helped lead shows that advanced courses can be a powerful lever. The randomized experiment found that students participating in Advanced Placement Biology and Chemistry improved their science skills relative to a control group that didn’t take them, though those gains were mainly among well-prepared students. AP also appeared to have boosted participants’ interest in pursuing STEM.
What remains unclear is how to get students, especially those who have historically been underserved or underprepared, to sign up for more classes. That’s a large gap in the research literature on the STEM pipeline.
For example, a federal study in Texas found that, despite having equal access to the same advanced courses as their peers, even high-performing black students completed fewer advanced classes than Hispanic students or white students.
Likewise, a recent study of more than 140,000 students’ records found that when high schools added more math and science classes overall, it didn’t boost the rate at which those students declared a STEM major or earned a STEM degree in college.
Empirical research on the value of particular teaching approaches remains in limited supply, with mixed results, and is often contested. One meta-analysis on inquiry-based science lessons, which underpin efforts like the Next Generation Science Standards, generally found lessons that were structured and led by teachers had stronger effects than other models.
All STEM interventions also depend on variations in teacher effectiveness. Studies have reached mixed results about what kind of teacher training makes a difference for STEM outcomes. Several studies conclude, though, that teachers who demonstrate math-content knowledge are linked to greater student-test scores in that subject.
For some researchers, the weight of the evidence suggests that the best way to improve the pipeline is to ensure that all students are provided a broad base of knowledge in the STEM fields.
“The takeaway for me is that K-12 should provide broad-based expertise and knowledge across the many sciences and technologies, rather than focus students narrowly upon math, or biology, or physics,” Harvard’s Teitelbaum said. “It would also help if K-12 gave equal weight to the applied sciences and engineering fields, as it has long done to the basic sciences.”
Librarian Holly Peele contributed research.
A version of this article appeared in the May 23, 2018 edition of Education Week as Is STEM Oversold as a Path to Better Jobs?