Is the U.S. Focusing Too Much on STEM?

Some critics say the recent obsession with science and tech compromises other parts of kids' education.


In late October, Alaska Airlines pledged a $1 million donation to a science and engineering program to educate up to 650 Alaska native middle schoolers. “Our goal is to make sure that as many students as possible who want to attend this program have the opportunity,” said Marilyn Romano, an Alaska Airlines executive. When asked what benefit the airline receives by making this donation, spokesman Tim Thompson said that stronger communities make for a better “potential employee base” for all of Alaska—and, presumably, Alaska Airlines—further down the line.

This is just one example of the many investments and initiatives around the world with the shared goal of exposing more students to the science, technology, engineering, and math—STEM for short. For schools, governments, non-profits, and corporations alike, an emphasis on STEM efforts shows that they are keeping up with the needs of today’s students. As I have worked on a series of stories for The Atlantic about this topic, almost every organization I contact tries to get me to publicize other STEM initiatives they are working on. My Google alert for “STEM education” is filled with publicity about successful STEM workshops or the launch of a new after-school program.

There’s been so much hype around STEM education that sometimes people forget what the acronym even stands for. It’s easy to lose sight of what STEM means in practice when school boards and politicians and CEOs describe its economic impact and tout its importance, oftentimes because it’s simply what they think people want to hear. Some economists have even questioned the statistics these STEM advocates cite to validate their programs and actions.

STEM can sometimes be an overused buzzword, the negative impacts of which are felt by students who don’t get a quality, well-rounded education. But in general its hype is justified because students simply need greater scientific and technological literacy than they did before to function in today’s society and economy.

“Anything that gets this kind of buzzword character tends to lose some of its real meaning in the process,” said Michael Teitelbaum, a senior research associate with the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School and author of the new book Falling Behind? Boom, Bust, and the Global Race for Scientific Talent.

STEM as an acronym has provided a strong basis for the movement that has grown around it. The history of the term is a little murky, but Judith Ramaley, who was then the Assistant Director of Education and Human Resources at the National Science Foundation, claims to have first suggested the term in 2001. This was a simple reordering of a previous acronym: SMET. “STEM just sounded better,” Ramaley said in a recent phone call. And while she’s not sure how much of the movement comes down to the acronym itself, she does know that “SMET is hard to rally around.”

The acronym was a timely change for a series of subject areas that were rapidly moving into the national conversation. According to David Drew, an education professor at Claremont Graduate University in California and author of the book STEM the Tide: Reforming Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Education In America, three forces sparked the national discussion about STEM education.

The first is a profound shift in the way the country’s economy functions, he said. Since the 1960s the U.S. economy has moved closer to becoming a true service economy, with more members of the workforce devoting their time to customers and less time to the product itself, like they did in the earlier part of the 20th century when the economy was more focused on manufacturing. U.S. technology companies like Apple and IBM have been a big part of this shift, wrote Natalie McCullough, then the chief marketing officer at a renewal-focused firm called ServiceSource, in a 2012 article in Forbes. “There’s a much more interesting domestic phenomenon here: the rise of high growth and high-value technicians who deliver a new world of advanced services for businesses and consumers alike,” she wrote. While some economists and policy makers have predicted a growth in STEM careers by 2018, the notion that the country will experience a shortage of scientists has more recently been discredited by education experts and academics.

The second force that brought STEM to the forefront, Drew said, is “the recognition and frustration that we are setting up unnecessary unfair barriers for people.” By this he refers to the unequal access to quality STEM education throughout the country, as well as the discrimination and discouragement faced by students who do try to pursue further education in these fields. This work has been covered extensively in the popular and scholarly media (I’ve written about it, too) and has inspired  numerous initiatives, from mobile DIY-engineering spaces to government programs that highlight departments’ diverse technical workforce, all of which are meant to level the playing field for students interested in STEM.

Finally, Drew said, the U.S. cares about STEM now because it realized “that we’re not doing as well in STEM in

K-12 education.” Much of this fear stems from the biennial findings of the Program for International Student Assessment, an organization that issues a test to 15-year-olds all over the world to rank their competence in reading, math, and science. Those scary 2012 statistics—that out of 65 education systems American students rank 27th in math and 20th in science—have generated headlines such as “U.S. Students Slide In Global Ranking On Math, Reading, Science” from NPR and “U.S. teens lag in global education rankings as Asian countries rise to the top” on NBC.

But the metric used to determine America’s standing is far from perfect, and its 2012 score isn’t necessarily an aberration. “I found that the U.S. has always been in the middle—we’ve never been at the top,” Teitelbaum said, pointing out that many of the education systems at the top of the list are cities, like Shanghai and Hong Kong, or very small countries like Singapore. “I’m not saying their performance is irrelevant,” Teitelbaum said, but the comparison shouldn’t be considered a direct one. “If you take a national average of the U.S., you have a huge disparity in educational performance across this country, even down to the local level, so you have a higher variety of educational outcomes,” he said, so it makes sense that Americans' average is not as high as smaller education systems. “We’re not falling back, some [other] countries are just rising, and the U.S. is not rising.”

Other metrics corroborate the idea that the U.S. isn’t falling behind when it comes to STEM. 2012 data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) shows that the U.S. spent more than any other country  on research and development. Similar data from the OECD shows that, in 2011, American scientists had published the most papers in reputable scientific journals and had submitted the greatest number of patents.

So, if the jobs don’t exist and the country isn’t moving up on the international rankings anytime soon, why place emphasis on STEM? “I think every kid who graduates needs to understand science, math, and technology,” said Teitelbaum, who was among the experts to point out that the U.S. doesn’t have a shortage of STEM workers. “I think that being competent in STEM fields at the end of secondary school is the modern equivalent of being literate and numerate in the 19th century.”

Many aspects of Americans’ daily lives require us to be more tech-savvy and quantitatively focused than prior generations, no matter the career. “Average citizens have been able to relate to [the dialogue about STEM] because of how much their lives have been changed by one aspect: technology,” Drew said.

STEM may be a word that has been tossed around liberally in the past, Drew said, but without it educators wouldn’t be able to talk about the subjects as easily. “I think there are limitations to the term [STEM] but on balance it has been a positive contribution because it’s helped people facilitate the dialogue,” he said. One of slogan’s limitations, he added, is that policy-makers and CEOs sometimes give “noble speeches” where they speak generally about STEM’s value without getting into the specific skills that students can gain from various programs.

When I asked Drew and Teitelbaum if the country is losing anything by emphasizing STEM in the way it has in recent years, both emphasized that the topic simply didn’t get enough attention before. Inevitably, if students spend more time on math then they’re spending less time on something else, Teitelbaum said. “But I think it’s a sensible thing to do—these subjects have gotten shortchanged in the past.”

Drew agreed: “We have de-emphasized STEM in the past to the point that people who could have become scientist or engineers, people who enjoyed those fields, didn’t get the educational experience they needed, so they lost out—and society lost out,” he said.

That’s not to say STEM education is today reaching as many students as it should, Drew added. But he does think that the focus on STEM is only going to increase in the future. “I think [this conversation] is going to be kicking around for a while.”