Major Push Under Way for Growth of STEM Careers The Buzz


STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. There's a huge, growing demand for workers in these fields.

There are many hundreds of careers that fall under the umbrella of STEM. They range from geneticists to mechanical engineers to water resource specialists. What they all have in common is that they apply scientific skills to real-world problems.

"There are really important problems that we need people trained in the STEM areas to solve," says Penny Rheingans. "And we're not producing enough of them." Rheingans is director of the Center for Women and Information Technology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Bob Kolvoord is a professor of integrated science and technology at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He's also co-director of the Center for STEM Education and Outreach. He says this is an exciting time for those interesting in STEM careers.

"I think this is a great time for students to look at STEM careers because of the diversity of possibilities that STEM careers offer," says Kolvoord. "I think too often students hear the words 'STEM career' and they only see somebody in a white lab coat who's inside all day.

"They don't see the environmental scientist who's out trying to sort out what's happening with the oil spill in the Gulf," he adds. "Or they don't see the bioscientist who's working out in the community trying to understand causes of cancer."

"There's a really big realization that we need to really move forward with this, or we're not going to have a workforce that is going to be sufficiently educated to meet the needs of the industries," says Robin Berk Seitz. She's chair of the Girls in Technology Committee, a committee of Women in Technology. Women in Technology provides leadership development, networking, mentoring and technology education. It is one of many organizations trying to get more girls to consider technology careers.

Berk Seitz is an instructional technologist. She works with schools and government agencies to develop online learning strategies.

Women are a small minority in most STEM professions. Increasing the number of women in these careers is a big part of the solution to filling society's need for STEM workers.

"The trends [regarding women in technology] are not great, but you have to just keep working at it," says Berk Seitz. "And certainly there are many, many programs coming out now that are for STEM and not even specifically geared toward girls, but just drawing the attention to engineering [and other STEM careers]."

Why is there such a need for STEM workers? Partly it's due to the aging workforce -- a trend that's affecting a number of careers. And it's largely due to the rapid rate of development in technology. Change requires lots of people to understand, develop and manage it.

"Advances in technology are... not only ubiquitous, but they're so fast now," says Berk Seitz. "It's very, very difficult to keep up with this.

"If you look, in general, at the rate of change in technology innovations, it is so rapid now, and it is so difficult to keep up, you really have to be a specialist, and you really have to be involved at all times," she adds.

"Plus there are a lot of comments about our education system and trying to improve that," she says. "I think the schools are doing the best they can, and it's just the rate of change and the competitiveness of the global economy that's created this [demand]."

It's hard to say how many STEM careers will be available in the coming years. But it's safe to predict that there will be no shortage of career opportunities.

"I work a lot in GIS (geographical information systems), and I would argue that everything that's done within GIS has a STEM component, but I'm not sure it's always counted," says Kolvoord. "So I think counting [the number of job openings] is hard."

Speaking of numbers, keep your calculator handy if you're thinking of pursuing a STEM career. Taking math courses is one of the best ways to prepare for these fields.

"I would say that the more math they take, the better off they are, because math really serves as the base layer for anything that we do in STEM," says Kolvoord.

And while math is very important, don't neglect your people skills. STEM careers involve a lot of collaboration and communication with others.

"We've created a stereotype of the lone wolf working by themselves in the lab, and what we're finding in our academic programs and in the jobs that students pursue is that the social piece is really critical," says Kolvoord. "We have to have people who can function on teams. We have to have people who can interact across disciplines. And it's not OK to be brilliant in one area if you can't communicate and collaborate."

"I think that as fewer people go into STEM, the less our society is technologically literate," says Elana Brief. "And that's a very scary thing because we're becoming more and more technological as a society, so if people have a lot of discomfort around technology, how are they going to navigate our world?"

Brief is president of a society for women in science and technology. She has a PhD in physics and works in medical ethics and neuroethics.

Rheingans believes more young people would go into STEM careers if they knew what a difference they could make in the world.

"There are huge amounts of ways you can do good for the world using technology, but there isn't this societal belief of that," says Rheingans. "So if anyone wants to take their strong math and analytical skills and go off and do good, they go into the life sciences (like medicine or biology)."

If you want to tackle important problems in the world, a STEM career could be just the ticket.

"Our world is becoming more and more reliant on technology, and so that means that the solutions to a lot of the world's problems are going to be technological solutions," says Brief.

"So if somebody cares about the environment, or if somebody cares about health care, or really, if someone cares about something in the world, there's likely going to be a technological answer to a problem," she adds. "And if they go into [a STEM field], they could be the people designing those solutions."

Links

STEM Career
A great source of info about careers in science, technology, engineering and math, including a link to the top STEM careers

Introduction to STEM Careers
Info on the projected demand for various STEM careers

STEM-ulating Games
Keep busy with some fun challenges