Is STEM education working, especially for women?
By Barbara Mader
STEM education remains in the spotlight 25 years after the term first emerged. Coined in the 1990s by the National Science Foundation, the acronym is applied to any curricula, event, policy or education program addressing Science, Technology, Engineering or Math. Most often it references Science and Math, but all four areas have become hot topics in the general education of K-12 students. The emphasis carries through to higher education and beyond, seeking to prepare young adults to assume 21st century worthy jobs. Anticipated areas of need include employees who are interactive as problem solvers, researchers, designers, and engineers.
The shortfall of current industry STEM prepared workers and anticipated workers needed over the next ten years can be compared to the 1950s and 60s shortfall of scientists in the space race era. The United States is losing ground in STEM expertise internally and globally for both workforce development and academia while other countries are ramping up efforts to produce scientists and engineers. Predictions put Asian engineering design and innovation surpassing American outputs in just a few years. STEM job growth is predicted to increase by 10% over the next decade, compared to a 4% increase in non-STEM industries. STEM prepared industry employees currently earn at least a $9.55/hr. higher than other industry counterparts.
The National Girls Collaborative Project is an organization committed to spreading the word and encouraging girl to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and math. Its goals include promoting the sharing of resources for maximum expansion of female inclusion in each group’s projects; strengthening the outcome of current projects by sharing exemplary practice research practices; and using the leverage of a network of like-minded organizations to create a gender equity in STEM.
Of particular emphasis through 2016 is strengthening, reaching, and serving underrepresented female populations in STEM. Examples of practices include maximizing access to and use of relevant, high quality resources that can raise awareness of and break down access barriers for females interested in STEM courses and careers, and provide collaborative opportunities for teachers to enable sustained development of improved practices. Targeted methodologies include webinars, websites, professional development opportunities, and mini-grants. To date, 39 states have participated in Collaboratives affecting over 8 million girls, and 4.5 million boys.
Despite proactive programs and opportunities for female students to engage in STEM forward learning, results show gender inequity in several course paths. While males and females show similar interest in math and science, males are three times more likely to pursue STEM careers. Females tended to pursue “softer” sciences such as biology; males tended to pursue physics and engineering, typically thought of as more male gender appropriate.
The disparity really begins to emerge at the higher education level. Women earn 57% of all Bachelor degrees but only 50% in science and engineering. Men earn over 80% of the degrees in engineering, computer science and physics, while women earn only 18-19% in the same fields. Women tend to earn their degrees, once again, in the “softer” science areas of psychology, social sciences, and biological sciences. Under-represented populations of women make up 16% of the degree earning population but receive only 3-5% of Bachelor degrees in engineering, computer sciences, and physical sciences.
Female populations, therefore, continue with inequitable representation in the workforce. Women make up 47% of the general workforce in the US, but hold only 2% of the Science and Engineering jobs. Minority women hold less than 10% of the 2% of these jobs. Female science careers cluster in social sciences, and biological and medical areas (about 50%) but average much less than 25% in computer and mathematical sciences, and engineering.
The glass ceiling has not been broken for STEM careers. Although these areas of gender inequity have been studied and discussed for over two decades, and presidents and the Federal policy makers have declared initiatives and policies aiming at leveling the gender field, little actual progress is reflected in real world applications.
Legal issues addressing job discriminating practices move slowly despite top down policies, initiatives, and business incentives, all theoretically unnecessary in a gender equal society. Career-life balance issues recently addressed by first Lady Michelle Obama and the National Science Foundation are beginning to place more information in the public eye but rate of change is unpredictable.
Barbara Mader is a retired teacher certified in special education, speech therapy, and as a Wilson Language Instructor. She taught special needs students in three states for over thirty years. She now tutors, blogs, edits, writes in eight categories for Examiner.com, and is developing a line of all natural non-chemical skin care products. As a hopeful novelist seeking an agent for her first romance adventure she wove together her love of gardening, ancient history, a little magic, and fairies. You can follow her online journalism work at http://www.examiner.com/user-bmader and her somewhat irreverent blog at http://barb-says.blogspot.com.