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.”