Mathis: STEM as Vermont’s urban myth?

Editor’s note: This op-ed is by William J. Mathis, the managing director of the National Education Policy Center who served as a Vermont superintendent of schools. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the positions of any group with which he is affiliated.

Maybe it’s time we turned the shortage of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) political bloviations over to Mythbusters. We haven’t heard this many anguished cries of alarm since Eisenhower and Sputnik. At least the 1958 National Defense Education Act resulted in a massive improvement in science textbooks and instruction – an approach with more promise than our current practice of importing indentured foreign workers.

The first step in busting the myth is to take a look at the federal government’s Bureau of Labor Statistics projections of the fastest growing jobs. Only two or three of the top 30 could be considered as requiring extensive STEM training. Even for the few STEM jobs projected to have dramatic percentage increases, these are big increases to a small number. For instance, the 62 percent increase in biomedical engineers represents less than 10,000 new jobs nationally — compared to the need for more than 70 times that number of new home health aides.

To be sure, a number of STEM jobs in the state have high percentage increases. Yet, again, these are big percentage increases to small numbers. For the decade 2008 to 2018, software engineers are projected to increase by only 361 new positions.

Of the nation’s nine million people with STEM degrees, only about three million work in STEM fields. Despite the lamentations of employers about not being able to hire qualified people (which is true in some locations), the real problem is that there are too few jobs for the qualified people available. Further, when businesses can off-shore jobs or hire foreign nationals at a fraction of the cost, there is no incentive to hire our home-grown kids.

In Vermont, the pattern is the same — except for registered nurses, none of our fastest growing jobs require STEM training. To be sure, a number of STEM jobs in the state have high percentage increases. Yet, again, these are big percentage increases to small numbers. For the decade 2008 to 2018, software engineers are projected to increase by only 361 new positions. But, in a “Call to Action for Vermont” STEM Connector says, in bold, red headlines, that the state needs 19,000 such workers.  That sounds rather alarming! At least until you dig a little deeper. Georgetown University’s prestigious Center on Education and the Workforce (which generated the numbers) calculates that’s only 4.7 percent of our workforce. A demand that is easily met provided we have jobs to attract our young adults to come home. Does Vermont have a problem with math and science achievement? Setting aside exaggerations based on inflated “standards,” when Vermont scores are compared to nations we rank sixth in math and seventh in science in the world.

The STEM urban myth rests on a greater unexamined myth of “economic competitiveness in a global market.” The problem is that universal, high level primary and secondary STEM education at the primary and secondary levels doesn’t make it into the World Economic Forum’s twelve pillars of economic competitiveness. Adopting “world class education standards” and standardized tests don’t make the list either. Let’s get real: the inability of the federal government to resolve its own fiscal problems, our national credit rating and the housing bubble have far more to do with our economic competitiveness than high school math requirements.

STEM as urban myth has several bad implications for education and social policy. First, it excites pressure to add even more science and math high school requirements — even though they encourage the glut in an over-supplied field. (Common Core believers are pressing forward in science standards based on the myths). It also wastes educational resources teaching skills which most students will never use. In the short run, for those students with limited interest or proclivities in STEM areas, it increases alienation from school and encourages drop-outs. Although only 18% of United States kids are interested in a STEM career, that is far more than enough as “the United States’ education system produces a supply of qualified [science and engineering] graduates in much greater numbers than the jobs available.”

More importantly, the myopic concentration on higher, harder STEM skills for all students distracts us from the purposes of education and overshadows the true skills for the 21st century. These include things like communications, responsibility, teamwork, evaluating information, listening, negotiating and creativity. So the real concern may not be training and testing enough high school students in STEM. It may be why did we forget the broader purposes of education in a democratic society?

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  • Craig Kneeland

    Pity the district where Mr Mathis was superintendent. Unfortunately, his views about math and science education are all too common among the educational establishment. The real myth about Vermont schools: If we teach only those schools required for a Liberal Arts degree we are doing an adequate job as an educator.

    The consequence of this limited view is a largely unemployed, and under- employed population struggling to get jobs that pay minimal wage. Meanwhile, the really good jobs are going to graduates of engineering and science programs. There are not enough of those graduates. Mr Mathis only needs to look at those schools in Vermont, like VTC or UVM that offer good science, math and engineering programs. I have paid attention to those few in-state schools over a number of years. The engineering and science programs usually have two problems; 1. They don’t have enough graduates for the many job recruiters that are hiring graduates, and, 2. They can’t find enough freshmen from Vermont high schools to qualify for their programs.

    Large companies with healthy profits and access to educated foreign workers may be able to get enough qualified employees. Young Vermonters are meanwhile struggling, wondering why they are unqualified when someone like Mr Mathis assured them they were getting an adequate education in a Vermont School.

  • Bruce Post

    “These include things like communications, responsibility, teamwork, evaluating information, listening, negotiating and creativity.”

    Back when I wrote federal education law for Senator Stafford, I was the subcommittee staff person responsible for the reauthorization of the federal Vocational Education Act. During our hearings, we had a several employers and their representatives testify, and they said basically the same thing Bill Mathis wrote above. They were interested in new employees who could learn, who could be trained, who could figure things out, who could show up on time.

    I think we should rechristen STEM as Stop The Empty Mythologizing.

  • Mary Evslin

    I disagree and think that the STEM approach is critical to our world today. I was offered only math up to algebra and geometry, no physics, no logic, no chemistry in highschool. But then I was a wannabe hippy in those old days.

    All of that disciplined thinking is now basic to living and working in today’s world. One needs to understand logical debugging all machines including computers to work in an assembly line or as a mechanic, one needs to know algebra to be a good marketing person who can figure out how pricing and inventory figures effect the bottom line or how to analyze a P&L. One should understand ratios to keep a small business on track. Teachers are now mentors of young people using all sorts of technology and they must deeply understand their stuff. Health workers need to understand computers and to analyse data, etc. STEM is not just training engineers…it turns boring math and science into relevant word problems to make logical and technical thinking part of a students everyday tool kit. Fuzzy thinking is no longer cool!

    • John Greenberg

      If you studied geometry, at least assuming you studied standard Euclid geometry and geometric proofs, you DID study logic. They just didn’t call it that.

      • rosemarie jackowski

        Ah, Geometry….should be the one mandatory course for all. I was almost not allowed to take it because I was a girl. It was 1950 then. After a lot of negotiating, I was in the class. Best class I ever took in High School. First week, I found an error in the textbook. My final grade was 99%. I asked the teacher, why not 100. He said it was against his principles to ever give anyone 100.

  • Craig Kneeland

    It is no myth that vocational and technical education would benefit greatly if those programs could get students with adequate math and science skills necessary for success in their chosen trade. The trades have the same problem as engineering schools. The kids are coming from high schools and elementary schools with inadequate lab and math skills adequate for preparation in a trade. Not enough applied science and math is being taught to kids that would otherwise be excellent employees and entrepreneurs.

  • Bruce Post

    Interesting comments and observations from G.V. Ramanathan, a professor emeritus of mathematics, statistics and computer science at the University of Illinois at Chicago:

    — ” Unlike literature, history, politics and music, math has little relevance to everyday life. That courses such as “Quantitative Reasoning” improve critical thinking is an unsubstantiated myth. All the mathematics one needs in real life can be learned in early years without much fuss. Most adults have no contact with math at work, nor do they curl up with an algebra book for relaxation.

    Those who do love math and science have been doing very well. Our graduate schools are the best in the world. This “nation at risk” has produced about 140 Nobel laureates since 1983 (about as many as before 1983).

    As for the rest, there is no obligation to love math any more than grammar, composition, curfew or washing up after dinner. Why create a need to make it palatable to all and spend taxpayers’ money on pointless endeavors without demonstrable results or accountability?”

  • David Dunn

    To G.V. Ramanathan’s point, adults indeed do not curl up with an Algebra book, but as with history some understanding of Math and Science is necessary in a Democracy in which each of us must be capable of making rational political decisions. Americans must be able to reason about science to make informed decisions with respect to science and technology policy.

    Perhaps an acceptable alternative is to require a solid Math and Science background for all of our journalists and policy makers. There is some irony in that any constructive argument about STEM must necessarily involve a healthy dose of Math and Statistics.

  • Per some representatives of the Vermont Business Round Table at today’s (02/19/2013) Vermont State Board of Education meeting: the “soft skills” (socialization, ability and willingness to continue learning and learn new things and all those executive brain functions that go with these) are badly needed for today’s workforce. Yes – they did say that good numbers reasoning was also necessary, but they didn’t lament the lack of people with higher algebra or geometry skills.

    I think Bill M. has this one right.

    The question isn’t whether or not higher levels of math skills are a good thing. The question is one of where do you apply your available resources to the best effect?

  • Ira Kuklina

    Ye. The cooling tower collapses at the Vermont Yankee Nuclear PlantIt because “too many” STEM in Vermont.
    Guys, You make my day.
    “Green Mountain Power and Entergy Corp. have agreed to a settlement of an undisclosed amount to cover costs incurred by GMP as a result of cooling tower collapses at the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Plant in 2007 and 2008.” – See more at: