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Making the case for STEM skills - for everyone

Posting in Education

Should everyone strive to develop some literacy in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)? Demand for people with STEM skills is white hot, even in an era of high unemployment. Even the most creative-type jobs now call for STEM abilities. One expert argues that everyone needs to have some STEM in their background, and it shouldn't be limited to engineers, programmers and scientists.

In a recent post, Dr. Richard Larson of MIT discussed why everyone -- especially non-tech types -- should have some working knowledge in the STEM area:

"A person has STEM literacy if she can understand the world around her in a logical way guided by the principals of scientific thought. A STEM-literate person can think for herself. She asks critical questions.  She can form hypotheses and seek data to confirm or deny them. She sees the beauty and complexity in nature and seeks to understand. She sees the modern world that mankind has created and hopes to use her STEM-related skills and knowledge to improve it."

There aren't enough students taking or mastering STEM courses, and Larson discusses the four common myths about STEM:

Myth #1: Engineering is all about hardware, gadgets and circuits. "Some of the highest growth and most important engineering topics of today are far from gadgets....  "The ‘engineering mentality’ and approach are needed in virtually all aspects of society. This is good news for both men and women whose career goals are more towards societal improvement than techno-gadget creation."

Myth #2: STEM is about standardized multiple-choice tests. A big piece of STEM is being creative and inventive. "Standardized tests do not encourage the development of critical thinking skills, risk taking, tolerance for and even celebration of failure, and thinking outside the box.'"

Myth #3: The world already has too many scientists. Very few STEM students become scientists, Larson points out. "Most STEM-literate students follow more regular non-technical careers, but with a rich STEM knowledge that can give them a competitive advantage in this increasingly complex highly connected world. Becoming STEM literate can help any career path."

Myth #4: STEM is only appropriate for those planning to be engineers or scientists. "Becoming knowledgeable about STEM is not about the 0.01% who might become Ph.D. researchers or the 1% who might become engineers.... Many apparently non-STEM jobs have become STEM jobs, especially in the trades.  Do you know that the average new car has about 50 microprocessors?"

Dr. Irving Wladawsky-Berger, former IBM VP and an advocate of STEM education, surfaced Larson's post, and also makes the case for STEM skills for everyone: "Our daily lives are now full of numbers and statistics.  Quantitative reasoning skills are important for many jobs, so we can understand what is going on and be able to adequately explain it to colleagues and customers... The ability to deal with the sophisticated machines all around and use them effectively to help us address complex problems is another very important STEM skill."

Or, as Larson puts it: "STEM is not only for Ph.D. researchers. It’s for all of us!"

(Photo: NASA.)

(Thumbnail: US Department of Commerce.)

— By on October 1, 2012, 12:54 PM PST

Joe McKendrick

Contributing Editor

Joe McKendrick is an independent analyst who tracks the impact of information technology on management and markets. He is a co-author of the SOA Manifesto and has written for Forbes, ZDNet and Database Trends & Applications. He holds a degree from Temple University. He is based in Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure