In the early days of the Industrial Revolution, it’s been estimated that around 12% of the world's population was literate. Literacy rates increased throughout the 19th century, as people started moving from the countryside to towns and cities for the job opportunities opening up in the newly industrialized societies. Many of these new jobs, especially the higher paying ones, required the ability to read and write. With the rise of universal education in almost all countries around the world, literacy rates steadily increased in the 20th century, - from roughly 20% in 1900 to around 80% in 2000. In the 21st century, we not only have the challenge of eliminating illiteracy altogether, but we must now also focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) literacy.
Most everyone would agree that there is a big difference between being proficient at reading and writing and being a playwright, a literary critic, a book editor or a journalist. The skills requirement are radically different. But, students don’t often appreciate the difference between achieving a modicum of STEM literacy and pursuing a STEM profession. Many avoid taking STEM courses because they have no intention of majoring in a STEM discipline. While everyone agrees that basic literacy is critical for just about any job, we don’t quite have the same level of appreciation that being STEM literate is increasingly important to qualify for a wide variety of jobs in our information-based knowledge economy.
Over the past few years, an increasing number of studies have argued that a good education for students majoring in STEM disciplines should include the so-called softer competencies more associated with the liberal arts in addition to harder, more technical skills. For example, a 2006 report by the National Academy of Engineering on the need to reforming engineering education noted that “New graduates were technically well prepared but lacked the professional skills for success in a competitive, innovative, global marketplace. Employers complained that new hires had poor communication and teamwork skills and did not appreciate the social and nontechnical influences on engineering solutions and quality processes.”
More recently, USC’s Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism conducted a study to better understand the key competencies companies were looking for, and whether their talent requirements were being adequately addressed by universities. Future leaders, the study found, must be strong in quantitative, technical and business skills. But to advance in their careers, they also need to be good strategic thinkers and must have strong social and communications skills. Graduates in STEM disciplines will find that complementing their specialized technical skills with broader and more diverse liberal arts competencies will significantly enhance their employability in the near term, and their capacity for lifelong learning over the course of their careers.
But, when it comes to STEM, the discussions have mostly focused on STEM jobs rather than STEM literacy, and in particular, on whether we have a STEM crisis or a STEM surplus, - a debate I recently wrote about. A number of articles have pointed out that, as is often the case with such complex questions, both sides are right. It all depends. STEM includes a variety of disciplines, degree levels and employment sectors. While some occupations do indeed have a shortage of qualified talent, others have a surplus.
“Every year U.S. schools grant more STEM degrees than there are available jobs,” wrote Robert Charette in his 2013 article The STEM Crisis is a Myth. It’s thus hard to make the case that there’s a general STEM labor shortage other than spot shortages for certain specialized skills. However, “there is indeed a shortage - a STEM knowledge shortage,” he later added.
“To fill that shortage, you don’t necessarily need a college or university degree in a STEM discipline, but you do need to learn those subjects, and learn them well, from childhood until you head off to college or get a job. Improving everyone’s STEM skills would clearly be good for the workforce and for people’s employment prospects, for public policy debates, and for everyday tasks like balancing checkbooks and calculating risks. And, of course, when science, math, and engineering are taught well, they engage students’ intellectual curiosity about the world and how it works.”
The need for widespread STEM literacy was nicely articulated by MIT Professor Richard Larson in a 2012 article, - STEM is for Everyone. “A person has STEM literacy,” explained Larson, “if she can understand the world around her in a logical way guided by the principals of scientific thought. A STEM-literate person can think for herself. She asks critical questions. She can form hypotheses and seek data to confirm or deny them. She sees the beauty and complexity in nature and seeks to understand. She sees the modern world that mankind has created and hopes to use her STEM-related skills and knowledge to improve it.”
If STEM literacy is so important for improving their employment prospects, why don’t more young people take STEM courses? In his article, Larson discusses a few of the misperceptions that shed light on this question:
Engineering is all about hardware, gadgets and circuits. Engineering is not just about techno-gadget creation, if it ever was. Bioengineering, for example, is a growing discipline that deals with the application of engineering to problems in medicine and biology, including the design and development of new diagnostic and therapeutic devices, synthetic biomaterial, artificial tissues and organs and drug delivery systems. Systems engineering is an interdisciplinary field that applies engineering processes to the design and management of complex systems in a variety of areas including healthcare, education, energy and finance. And, design thinking is increasingly being applied beyond physical products to customer experiences, innovation, business strategy and complex problem solving.
The world already has too many scientists and engineers. The reality is that a relatively small percentage of STEM students go on to STEM careers. “Most STEM-literate students follow more regular non-technical careers but with a rich STEM knowledge that can give them a competitive advantage in this increasingly complex highly connected world. Becoming STEM literate can help any career path.”
“I do not plan to be an engineer or scientist, so STEM is not for me. Unfortunately, many STEM professionals and educators contribute to this misperception. They don’t do a particularly good job explaining to young people, their parents and the world at large what we mean by STEM literacy. They have not adequately made the case why quantitative reasoning, familiarity with sophisticated machines, and dealing with complex systems, problems and decisions are important job skills in our fast changing, complex world.
These skills are also very important in our daily life, which is now full of numbers and statistics. For example, understanding the interest rates we pay for our credit cards, car loan or mortgage requires a fair degree of quantitative reasoning. If we don’t do such reasoning by ourselves, we are at the mercy of others doing it for us who may not always have our best interests in mind.
“Many children born today are likely to live to be 100 and to have not just one distinct career but two or three by the time they retire at 80,” wrote Charette in his concluding paragraph. “Rather than spending our scarce resources on ending a mythical STEM shortage, we should figure out how to make all children literate in the sciences, technology, and the arts to give them the best foundation to pursue a career and then transition to new ones.”