“Best students move out of science and engineering careers”…?

Steady as She Goes? Three Generations of Students through the Science and Engineering Pipeline

In October 2009, Rutgers University released an important (if not provocative) report that didn’t make the headlines and was barely mentioned by the usual STEM chest-pounders (STEM = Science, Technology, Engineering, Math). I mean that in a good way–we need those folks. Wait, I’m one of them.

But why haven’t we heard much about this report? It may have something to do with a key finding that, in some ways, seems to contradict some of the common pull quotes of STEM-related press releases where we often hear about the need–and, more recently, read about the financial investments–to turn more kids onto STEM careers. Rightly so, especially given the fact that the number of STEM graduate degrees earned in the U.S. in 2006 ranked among the lowest of the G-8 countries. (Digging up recent stats now. If you have info, would you kindly send it to me?)

Here’s where the confusion sets in. Based on the findings of the Rutgers report, a HUGE problem is being dissed. From the report:

Yet, is there evidence of an actual long-term decline in the proportion of American students with the relevant training and qualifications to pursue STEM jobs? We have argued elsewhere that the United States actually supplies more than enough students prepared for STEM jobs and that there is little evidence of a current domestic supply bottleneck (Lowell and Salzman, 2007).1 We found that universities in the United States actually graduate many more STEM students than are hired each year. We also found that the U.S. education system produces large numbers of top-performing science and math students.2

But….?

“Highly qualified students may be choosing a non-(science, technology, engineering and mathematics) job because it pays better, offers a more stable professional career, and/or perceived as less exposed to competition from low-wage economies,” writes Georgetown University demographer Lindsay Lowell and colleagues, in the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation-funded study. “The problem may not be that there are too few (science) qualified college graduates, but rather that (science) firms are unable to attract them.”

In an April speech at the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), President Obama seconded years of concern over the U.S. scientific workforce, particularly a 2005 NAS report, by calling for more engineering and science graduates from U.S. colleges.

However, the supply of technically-capable students has remained level over the last three decades, find the researchers, producing “many more” science graduates than are hired by industry. Turning to federal surveys from 1972 to 2005, they instead find that the best students are moving out of science and engineering careers, “at a substantial rate, and this decline seems to have come on quite suddenly in the mid-to-late 1990s.”

Many of the  best STEM graduates follow the money, at least they did in the  90s, per this report. And, there was a lot more money to go around back then, in non STEM areas. Regardless,  this paper provides a nice argument in support of raising salaries for STEM-related positions. Now. Industry: are you listening? I know you like to hire cheap labor overseas but…”Wo jue de ni yao ting wo shuo!  Zenmeyang? Xie, xie, ni.”

On the bright side, it’s possible this bad economy will be good for STEM. Money’s not what it used to be in the investment banking world these days. In fact, current currency among the leaders in that realm is traded in Marlboro cigs if my sources are correct.

  • It is a real shame too many kids enter school with an eye only on their pocketbook and not what they can truly make a difference in. The truly best one get both (or something close enough)!

  • It is a real shame too many kids enter school with an eye only on their pocketbook and not what they can truly make a difference in. The truly best one get both (or something close enough)!

  • OK, after actually reading all of this through, here’s my two-cents worth…

    This may not be too bad of an issue as reported! Shockingly, I tell my students, for example, that becoming scientifically literate is incredibly important, but becoming a scientist and choosing a career outside of science can be just as important- sometimes more so!

    I have seen friends get a Bachelor’s degree in a science and go into law, banking or any other non-technical field. Why? Because there is money to be had in these fields, especially if one has a technical background! Patent Law is rather lucrative! Having a technical/scientific background can be useful and an actual advantage when job hunting! An understanding of technology can give one “a leg up” on others in timing of tech investments or even whether a potential technology is really viable or will be a “flash-in-the-pan”- die after the initial buzz on the trading floor…

    While it is great to feed Seymore (Little Shop of Horror- the scientific pipeline) more science graduates, having them go out into the real world with technical backgrounds is a great good as well! This raises the general public level of scientific literacy and supports out society in its technological growth.

    So the problem is not just making enough scientists, nor keeping them in scientific/technological fields, but having them contribute in an obvious fashion where they are actually using what they have learned. This means: CONTINUE STEM FUNDING! The effects of doing so will permeate society in ways that may not be directly or easily realized for some time, but it is working! We just need to be persistent and patient, but don’t stop feeding Seymore good teachers (at all levels), good facilities/resources and above all else, good funding to get more and more good students out there and contributing!!!

  • OK, after actually reading all of this through, here’s my two-cents worth…

    This may not be too bad of an issue as reported! Shockingly, I tell my students, for example, that becoming scientifically literate is incredibly important, but becoming a scientist and choosing a career outside of science can be just as important- sometimes more so!

    I have seen friends get a Bachelor’s degree in a science and go into law, banking or any other non-technical field. Why? Because there is money to be had in these fields, especially if one has a technical background! Patent Law is rather lucrative! Having a technical/scientific background can be useful and an actual advantage when job hunting! An understanding of technology can give one “a leg up” on others in timing of tech investments or even whether a potential technology is really viable or will be a “flash-in-the-pan”- die after the initial buzz on the trading floor…

    While it is great to feed Seymore (Little Shop of Horror- the scientific pipeline) more science graduates, having them go out into the real world with technical backgrounds is a great good as well! This raises the general public level of scientific literacy and supports out society in its technological growth.

    So the problem is not just making enough scientists, nor keeping them in scientific/technological fields, but having them contribute in an obvious fashion where they are actually using what they have learned. This means: CONTINUE STEM FUNDING! The effects of doing so will permeate society in ways that may not be directly or easily realized for some time, but it is working! We just need to be persistent and patient, but don’t stop feeding Seymore good teachers (at all levels), good facilities/resources and above all else, good funding to get more and more good students out there and contributing!!!

  • Thanks, Paul. You should be the STEM Cheerleader 🙂 Here are insights from Bart Leahy. WOOT!
    http://bartacus.blogspot.com/2010/01/potpourri-cxiv-extra-long-edition-of.html

  • Thanks, Paul. You should be the STEM Cheerleader 🙂 Here are insights from Bart Leahy. WOOT!
    http://bartacus.blogspot.com/2010/01/potpourri-cxiv-extra-long-edition-of.html

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  • Yep…as Paul alluded to…sometimes you need to make a living. Many ‘pure’ academicians complain about ‘low’ pay. To that I say, “get another JOB.” Seriously…science is hard. Otherwise everyone would have a PhD (or MS). Unless Scientists themselves do a BETTER job of promoting/marketing the profession, then most would-be scientists will be … See Moreturned off by the impersonal and lonely nature of the profession. (i.e. think of the science professor stereotype…socially inept, can’t tie his shoes…would rather watch grass grow then attend a Victoria Secrets’ model exhibition..:-)…etc). Scientists NEED to learn better how to communicate with non-scientists…wow…caffeine does amazing things in the A.M.

  • Yep…as Paul alluded to…sometimes you need to make a living. Many ‘pure’ academicians complain about ‘low’ pay. To that I say, “get another JOB.” Seriously…science is hard. Otherwise everyone would have a PhD (or MS). Unless Scientists themselves do a BETTER job of promoting/marketing the profession, then most would-be scientists will be … See Moreturned off by the impersonal and lonely nature of the profession. (i.e. think of the science professor stereotype…socially inept, can’t tie his shoes…would rather watch grass grow then attend a Victoria Secrets’ model exhibition..:-)…etc). Scientists NEED to learn better how to communicate with non-scientists…wow…caffeine does amazing things in the A.M.

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