For over half a century, innovations based on science and engineering have powered the U.S. economy, creating good jobs, a high standard of living, and international economic leadership. Yet, as the National Science Board documented in Science and Engineering Indicators: 2012, the nations global share of industries focused on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics--the group widely known as STEM--is in decline. Moreover, the nation is not able to produce enough STEM workers domestically in key fields. Although increasing the quantity and quality of U.S. graduates in STEM fields will not turn around declining U.S. innovation-based competitiveness, it is an important component of a national innovation strategy.
Although a few policy experts have disputed this framing--as Harold Salzman and B. Lindsay Lowell did in their 2007 book Into the Eye of the Storm: Assessing the Evidence on Science and Engineering Education--most have embraced it. In fact, the past quarter-century has seen a widespread consensus that the United States needs to do a better job at promoting and supporting STEM education. Numerous task forces, commissions, and study groups have produced an array of reports sounding the same alarm, identifying the same problems, and calling for largely the same solutions.
Yet the problems remain. The number of bachelor's of science degrees in engineering awarded over the past 15 years has barely grown, and master's degrees in STEM have increased at about half the rate of non-STEM master's degrees. Also, almost half of doctoral STEM degrees are now awarded to foreign nationals. Many observers attribute the failure to reverse these trends to a lack of political will. If only elected leaders would take the problem seriously and devote significant resources, the thinking goes, the nation could solve the problem. But the nation has, in fact, taken action. Congress has passed numerous bills, and several presidential administrations, including the Obama administration, have established a variety of STEM initiatives.
It is therefore time to consider whether the problem is not a lack of political will but rather a lack of the right conceptual framework. The dominant framework, and the one that informs virtually all policy deliberations on STEM, is based on what can be termed the "Some STEM for All" approach. In this view, STEM is so important for individual opportunity that the nation must make sure that along every step of the way, but particularly in elementary and middle school, all students get as much high-quality STEM education as possible. This solution would involve raising the quality of STEM teachers from kindergarten through 12th grade, imposing rigorous STEM standards, improving curriculum, and boosting awareness among students of the attractiveness of STEM careers. Unfortunately, even if all of these steps could be funded--which is not the case, given fiscal realities-they would not solve the problem.
Instead, it is time to introduce a new framework based on an "All STEM for Some" approach, where the purpose of driving STEM education is not principally to create economic opportunity for individuals but to provide the "fuel" needed to power a science- and technology-driven U.S. economy. The framework will require working actively to recruit those students who are most interested in, and capable of doing well in, STEM and providing them with the kind of educational experience they need to make it all the way through the educational pipeline and come out ready, willing, and able to contribute to growing the U.S. innovation economy.
In short, if the nation is to more effectively address the STEM challenge, fresh thinking and fresh approaches are needed. This effort will involve facing down six myths that have emerged about the prevailing Some STEM for All framework, and then adopting two particular policy solutions to set the nation on a better path.
Alternate STEM reality
The first myth is that in a globalized, technology-driven world, all students needs to learn STEM. In this view--so widely held that it is virtually never questioned--the economy will be so innovation-based that everyone, even those who will never become Ph.D. scientists, will need to learn as much STEM as possible. The reality is quite different. Only about 5% of jobs are STEM jobs, and that share is not expected to grow significantly. This is one of the findings that my colleague Merrilea Mayo and I reported in Refueling the U.S. Innovation Economy: Fresh Approaches to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Education, issued in …