How To Grow STEM

There’s a four-letter solution to America’s economic crisis. STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields are burgeoning as a job market, but companies in this sector struggle to find qualified candidates in the U.S. because America’s academic performance in this area is decidedly lackluster. The obvious remedy? Get kids interested in science, and jobs will follow.

Championing this cause in its annual philanthropy campaign last year, Google made significant charitable donations to sixteen organizations that are “working to give a new generation of students a chance to embrace science, technology, engineering, and math—and to pursue the rewarding careers that so often follow.” In order to ensure that such careers do follow, however, STEM programs need to engage students beyond the K-12 level.

Too often, STEM-related initiatives focus disproportionately on inspiring children and adolescents without providing enough support at the more critical post-secondary level. For instance, most of the organizations supported by the Google Gives Back campaign, including Girl Scouts of Northern California, the Roberta Initiative, and Citizen Schools, encourage a general interest in science among elementary and middle school children. Although early exposure to the sciences is certainly necessary, and positive experiences can be formative, getting kids interested in math and science is only half the battle. To ensure that children’s passion for STEM leads into actual careers, we must sustain and support this interest through adulthood.

Many academically promising students enter college with an interest in the sciences, but a whopping 40% drop out of STEM-related majors and career paths over the course of their four years. This alarming trend suggests a dissonance between students’ expectations and the reality of what it takes to excel in STEM. A student whose love for chemistry was first inspired by a hands-on experiment conducted with the help of his favorite eighth grade teacher might be unhappily surprised to discover that in college, introductory courses are extremely large, professors often focus more on researching than on teaching, and job prospects after graduate school are sometimes limited to becoming a perennial post-doc. The sharp decline in interest in STEM careers at the collegiate level renders interest-stimulating STEM efforts at the elementary and middle school levels null.

STEM initiatives must move beyond the traditional focus on early education to provide students with resources and support at this crucial academic stage. Nationally, 60% of aspiring physicians drop out of the college pre-medical track, although many of those students enter college with a strong background and interest in science. Strict medical school enrollment caps notwithstanding, the pre-med dropout rate could conceivably be lowered if a multitude of STEM initiatives existed at the college level to support students’ interests in medical careers. For instance, following the example of novel initiatives like the twelve-university Summer Medical and Dental Education Program and Harvard’s own Program for Research in Science in Engineering, there is potential for federally funded, large-scale efforts to ensure that historically underrepresented groups like minority students are not disadvantaged from studying health sciences at the college level.

Collegiate STEM support should by no means limit itself to pre-medicine tracks. The STEM field is unparalleled in its diversity, yet many students frankly do not realize that they have science career options besides becoming a doctor or engineer. When stressful demands push students to forgo their engineering or health profession plans, they often look into careers in finance and business rather than into other science professions. Of the 3.4 million students enrolled in graduate school in 2006, only 600,000 of them were scholars of science or engineering. Clearly, we need to expose college students to a greater variety of viable science career options. This exposure can take the form of more involved science-related career advising akin to the myriad pre-med resources that already exist at most competitive institutions. It should also involve significant expansion of shadowing programs that connect students to researchers, technology developers, and other professionals who would otherwise remain inaccessible.

Finally, STEM initiatives should shoulder the simple but serious responsibility of reminding stressed college students that science can be fun. When a child discovers the vastness of the cosmos or the biological diversity of the ocean for the first time, he is awestruck. Unfortunately, somewhere between the "Magic School Bus" days and the senior thesis proposal, this feeling fades for many a jaded student. Therefore, if STEM advocates want students to retain a passion for scientific inquiry, they must find ways for university science departments to reinforce the sense of wonder that initially draws young minds to science.

The current model of STEM education exhorts sixth graders to aspire to become paleontologists and titillates high school sophomores with the implications of forensic science only to abandon college freshmen in a sea of dry physics textbooks and three-story lecture halls that must be traversed to reach the graduate degrees, post-graduate fellowships, and post-post graduate trainings that might actually lead to STEM careers. This is not a solution to America’s STEM deficit. Supporting post-secondary STEM education may very well prove more difficult, resource-intensive, and risky than dazzling third graders with a baking soda volcano, but the rewards of doing so will be equally explosive.

Tarina Quraishi ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, is an English concentrator living in Eliot House.

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