Is STEM a panacea for education?

By Aundrea Bailey

The term “STEM” seems to be coming up in every conversation about education. You may already know what STEM stands for: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. But as far as how and whether to firmly apply STEM to our education system, that’s where the agreement ends. Googling STEM will generally send you one of two ways: STEM careers or STEM education. But why even google STEM? Does it matter? Simply put, yes it does…in a crucial way.

People are scared. Private companies, educational administrators, economists, government entities, and even the President are worried about the future of the United States. Why? According to advocates of STEM such as Change the Equation, technological innovation from STEM disciplines accounted for almost half of the United States’ economic growth over the past 50 years. Many view STEM as an economic necessity that keeps the US economy robust and competitive, and that imperativeness is what scares people to the point that STEM education is a priority in the President’s agenda, the agendas of Fortune 500 companies, and government organizations.

Questions abound as to how STEM education should be framed. What is its purpose? And how should it be executed to achieve its purpose? There is little no consensus. Advocates run in different cliques all with their own interests and perspectives. However, although advocates view the purpose of STEM education in a variety of contexts, several contexts emerge under which most of the others fit.

Advocates want to get as many students as possible into the STEM “pipeline” running all the way from kindergarten to college graduation.

Produce STEM workers?
The first context resides under the purpose of economic necessity: STEM workers keep this nation competitive on a global and economic scale, and effective STEM education will produce STEM workers. Electricity, airplanes, cars, and Facebook are some of the mega inventions of Americans. Advocates view STEM education as the kick that will keep that ball rolling. Advocates want to get as many students as possible into the STEM “pipeline” running all the way from kindergarten to college graduation. And they want to keep STEM college graduates working in STEM fields so that the innovation of past and present America (hello iPad!) charges into future America.

Or teach basic competencies?
The second context is that the purpose of STEM education is simply to deliver basic competencies to all American students. Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are subjects that teach skills like critical analysis, computation, investigation, and innovation. Advocates feel that effective STEM education will imbue these skills in students who may not necessarily major or work in STEM disciplines, but they will have a set of skills needed to become successful, functioning adults in a society that is becoming more scientific and technological by the day.

Or is STEM not the right focus?
The third context consists of the other side i.e. those who are not too thrilled about a nationwide push towards STEM disciplines. First, opponents found that the supply of STEM workers has remained steady over the past 30 years thus negating advocates’ argument that there is a “shortage” in the supply of STEM workers. Furthermore, while the United States Department of Commerce projected an 18% increase in STEM occupations from 2008-2018, STEM critics found shrinking employment opportunities in STEM disciplines that, if flooded with more STEM workers, could actually depress wages in STEM fields that already have depressed wages due to the abundant availability of cheaper, off-shore labor. Thus, one argument of critics is that students are not shunning STEM disciplines for lack of interest and knowledge, but for lack of incentive.

So what’s a nation to do? Pour millions or even billions of dollars into disparate “goals” for speculative worries about STEM education? Ignore the speculation at the potential risk of the nation’s economic future? Or delve into alternative solutions that neither throw money at this concern nor ignore it?


Aundrea Bailey is a graduate student at the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University. She is currently pursuing a Master of Public Administration with concentrations in Planning and Economic Development and Policy Analysis and Evaluation.