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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

What is a S.T.E.M. Career?

Why all the fuss about STEM and STEM careers? Every few years the education field is overcome with a new buzz-word, a new way to improve schools and the way children learn and teachers teach, a new reform tactic. The onslaught of technology in the classroom, coincided with a quantum change in how people interact with computers, approximately 30 years ago. When Apple and Microsoft and a few lesser-knowns provided a desk-top interface, when Apple started giving away Apple IIs to every teacher who would use one and many who balked at the idea; when IBM hosted round-tables and think-tanks with K-12 educators; when software publishers raced through the gate to be the first to sell educational software to K-12 schools, there was a palpable shift in the way schools would be run and what the workplace would expect when newly-graduated students arrived.

That was the beginning of the shift. That was way back in the early 1980s. Can you even remember, if you were around then, conducting your work or study without a desktop computer as an appendage? If you are a Gen-Xer, try to imagine typing letters and putting them in the mailbox and waiting for a reply; calling people on the phone and waiting for a reply. Building a card catalogue of contacts and making notes on each card of your history with that person or organization. If you were trying to make something happen, you did what we called "networking." You called people and they would give you ideas of more people to call until you had created a network of interested parties or patrons on 3x5 cards. Big projects, like environmental awareness programs, called for huge expensive ad campaigns, phone trees, and bulk mailing from which you might expect a 2% response from a huge expensive and tedious outreach effort.

It took a while for people to catch on to the power of the personal computer. This wasn't just a fancy could create mailings, databases, spreadsheets. You could save files and organize files and people and projects. Some wondered early on how money could be made. Surely this was possible.

The desktop computer changed the way scientists could conduct research. They had a stake early on in students being trained in computer applications and programing. Computer science, engineering, and mathematics were quickly becoming  fields attracting nerds and geeks from every corner of the globe. Nerds were cool. Computer and video games flourished and software publishers capitalized on the possibilities early on: Tom Sneider, Mario, The Oregon grab a few from the recesses of my memory.

The private sector had much to gain now from a well-trained generation who were still sitting in traditional classrooms being taught by traditional teachers who were too busy to learn how to integrate computers into the classroom. This was 30 years ago and the struggle still exists, but we've come a long way.

I think the big wake-up call for the importance of a digital-savvy nation came when the bottom fell out of the economy. We really needed to get serious about keeping up with the Joneses on the eastern side of the global neighborhood; we needed to get serious about assuring our children of a place in a world that is nothing like the one their parents graduated into. 21st Century Skills translated into jobs and with luck, a college scholarship because who can afford that luxury any more?

About the same time the market flopped, and big bunch of oil was spilled into the sea. Children in classrooms in every corner of the world were watching one of the biggest ecological disasters in history, live, as it unfolded--a powerful teachable event. Scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians from around the globe came together to solve a crisis. Some classrooms watched, some participated, hundreds of thousands of students discovered during that time the importance and the relevance of preparing for a STEM career.

Today, STEM education and STEM careers have become one of the biggest buzzwords to hit the education field in a long time. If you are a classroom teacher or a K-12 administrator, you might be interested in reading my book: Connecting Students to STEM Careers, Social Networking Strategies.


  1. It may be true that technology has transformed the way we work. I used to be a scientist. I started working in the early 90s and continued until 2005. I obtained a doctoral degree and although technology changed how science worked, it did NOT help preserve jobs or salaries.

    You have to be very careful touting a prolonged educational endeavor that are required for many STEM fields without know whether there are reasonably well paying careers at the end of that long pipeline. What I found when I emerged from the Ph.D. pressure cooker was a massive glut of scientists that had created a post-doctoral logjam. People are bailing out of my field right and left. And many stem fields have the same problem.

    Big business? Academia? They LOVE this. Highly skilled Ph.D.'s are a dime a dozen - ripe for massive exploitation at ridiculously low salaries and terrible working conditions.

    Its all well and good to encourage youngsters to go into STEM careers. But you better be pushing for new tough labor laws that protect the brainiacs of the world. As for me, when I found myself working longer hours for less money then the people that swept the floors - it was time to call it quits.

  2. Dear RuthMarie~
    I am so sorry to hear about your disappointment after all your hard work. Without knowing more about your specific field, I can't comment on that, but I can tell you that I wound up in educational technology as a result of a log-jam of classroom teachers in the humanities in secondary education back in the 70s and 80s. On top of that, if you were a woman and didn't coach football, or some kind of ball, you were plum out of luck. There were no labor laws to protect us either.

    You have fingered a critical issue in our society. It's not that we don't need trained professionals or that it's not important for teachers and students to stay current with emerging technologies, it's that educators and labor leaders and policy makers don't plan together for the futures of today's students.

    We will always need well-educated students, not just in the STEM fields, but also in the arts and humanities. As I pointed out in the beginning of my post, we jump from buzz-word to buzz-word with less thought for the future of students than for the future of the marketplace. Who benefits from the latest trends in education? You are right, academia and corporate enterprises.

    Don't get me wrong. This is not intentional, it's the way it works. If we, as a nation, were as concerned about the welfare of our students as we were about our race to the top, there wouldn't be so many out there trying to find a place to fit in.

    How do we protect the kids coming up today from career gluts and unemployment? I invite more thoughts and posts. Please share your ideas.


  3. I have a blog I just started called "Reinnovating America". I'm using it as a living laboratory for thinking through what is happening in the sciences and other STEM fields and what can possibly be done to correct it. Even putting a finger on the problem is even messy because there are so many tentacles to who wins and who loses in these scenarios that it boggles the mind. The bottom line is this: Sadly the status quo works well for the powers that be.

    Just so you know, I was (by trade) a molecular biologist with 15 years at the bench and a doctorate from a major medical school. My degree was in immunology although I have an M.S. in molecular biology.

    Several issues hit Ph.D.'s really hard in my field, but I see similar situations happening in other STEM fields as well.
    1. Clinton increased the NIH budget - so more people flooded into graduate school and more post-docs came here from abroad. Biotech was booming - so why not?
    2. Bush took office and started slashing the NIH and then stopped most human stem cell research. I didn't do that type of work, but there was a peripheral impact as people with these types of labs left the country. This happened just as a flood of graduate students from the Clinton expansion were ready to get their sheepskin.
    3. 9/11 diverted a lot of funding to "Homeland Security". I wasn't into working with biological weapons so I was SOL.
    4. Physican-Researches were already squeezing out the Ph.D. - though there is plenty of evidence that really Ph.D.'s are more effective for basic research.
    5. Principal Investigators scrambling for grant money needed as many hands in the lab as they could get. So recruiting by institution for grad students and post-docs continued relentlessly even as everyone knew the axe was falling on many investigators - leaving many of those hands unemployed in the wink of an eye. You are just one grant approval away from a pink slip after all.
    6. Industry LOVES this...Commoditizing highly skilled Ph.D.'s is a dream come true. Salaries are barely subsistance and the hours required are in the sweat shop category.

    The latter two issues are PURE EXPLOITATION. Strong labor laws would stop these practices dead in their tracks. But our society doesn't seem to care about how we treat employees these days. God forbid we offend job creators!


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