We all know that STEM plays a crucial role in our modern world, from the economy to our general well-being. It will continue to play a crucial role in our future economy as advancements in technology persists. STEM goes beyond writing codes and wearing lab coats. It has become the backbone of many industries including logistics, construction, manufacturing and healthcare.
As with gender, disparities are also persistent in STEM degree attainment among various and ethnicities. Whites are leading in the number of degrees earned among all races overall.
Science, technology, engineering and math related jobs currently account for over 70 percent of all jobs available in the United States of America. However, STEM skills shortage is an issue faced in most countries in the world. As a result, the average wage of STEM workers exceeds that of non-STEM workers. STEM education has long been thought to be the key to producing enough skilled workers to cater to the future demands of the industry, tackling the evident skills shortage.
In recognizing the STEM skills shortage faced today and the exponential growth trend of the STEM job market, increasing the STEM workforce continues to be a top concern for industry, government and academic leaders. To succeed in increasing the STEM workforce, a focus area has been to reduce the disparities in race, gender and socioeconomic backgrounds. Despite efforts made by academic institutions and organizations, racial, gender and socioeconomic disparities in STEM continues to persist in many parts of the world. Women, Blacks and Latinx communities have always been underrepresented in STEM workforce as they are much less likely to be enrolled in a science or engineering degree program at their college.
Over the past few decades, more women have opted to enroll in STEM related degree programs in general. Thus, the percentage of women in STEM occupations has increased since the 1970s. However, they are still significantly underrepresented in engineering and computer related fields. Furthermore, the percentage of women in computer related fields has continued to decline since the 1990s despite the overall increase on women in STEM fields. There has also been less growth in STEM employment among younger women in the recent decades. So, there has been an increase in the number of women in the STEM workforce, but the growth has been relatively slow. Furthermore, although women generally earn significantly more bachelor’s degrees than men, they are much less likely to opt for a STEM degree in comparison to men.
As with gender, disparities are also persistent in STEM degree attainment among various and ethnicities. Whites are leading in the number of degrees earned among all races overall. They account for most Bachelor and Associate degrees earned in the United States. Whites are followed by Latinos, Blacks, Asians and Native Americans accordingly in the percentage of degrees earned by race. While Asians earn the fourth highest number of degrees, they are most likely to earn STEM degrees, at around 50 percent, and most likely to pursue and persist in STEM careers. Furthermore, irrespective of gender, Asian and White STEM degree holders are more likely to work in STEM fields, in comparison to Blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans.
Regardless of gender and race, disparities in socioeconomical backgrounds are prevalent. While increasing access to STEM related fields generally leads to better career opportunities, studies have shown that some students struggle due to their socioeconomical background. Many students, especially those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, tend to find the high-stake exams necessary for success in STEM education to be unnecessarily stressful and anxiety provoking. The high levels of stress have shown to negatively impact students’ performance, thus preventing them from thriving in STEM disciplines.
Researchers have found that when students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are given the opportunity to emotionally regulate their worries, they tend to perform better in their exams. Thus, emotional regulation interventions are crucial to help reduce the rates of failure of lower-income students in STEM disciplines. While STEM knowledge is important for success, the ability of students to regulate their emotions is very important as well.
Despite the prevalence of these disparities, it is possible to reduce and eventually eliminate them with the right interventions. To increase the participation of students in STEM disciplines, the private sector can collaborate with K-12 schools and academic institutions to design and develop innovative programs and courses that will spark the interest of students. This will help encourage them to embark on STEM career paths. It is also important to emphasize increasing the gender and racial diversity and encouraging young women and girls to purse STEM careers.
The outreach of STEM education can also be improved by introducing the concepts to kids and involving them at a younger age. For older students, additional effective STEM partnerships can be implemented such as internships, apprenticeships, mentoring and peer support.
As STEM education continues to evolve, it is important for schools to rethink and reinvent their approach. Some universities have incorporated new evidence-based approaches such as active learning and inclusive learning into their STEM courses. Active learning has shown to increase student engagement and results in deeper conceptual understanding and long-term retention of the knowledge. These factors contribute to an increase in students’ success and persistence in STEM fields. Evidence-based teaching has also proven to be effective in STEM education.
Schools generally tend to focus too much on memorization as opposed to problem solving when it comes to STEM education. This approach has shown to kill students’ interest in STEM topics early. Allowing students to solve real problems, learning by doing will spark their interest more. Schools can also consider giving students the opportunity to conduct science research projects at an early age. This will make sure that education is not restricted to a classroom or a textbook.
In addition to these disparities — gender, racial and socioeconomical, scores of students having undertaken STEM education are not prepared for the workforce. Thus, education institutions and companies are challenged to train an increasingly technical workforce to fill up the skills gap. To bridge the gap in STEM education, collaboration among academic institutions, and private and public organizations is key. The STEM education system will need to be reevaluated and redesigned along with the courses as required.