Although there has been a lot of focus on how few American women are going into the Science, Technology. Engineering and Mathematics fields when they get to college, less attention is being paid to the fact that there are too few students taking an interest in these majors overall. In order to maintain the country’s economic competitiveness, the U.S. needs to urgently take steps to grow the number of scientists, engineers and information technology professionals it produces locally.
According to the latest statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor, only 5% of the country’s population is employed in these fields, which is too few if the U.S. wants to hold on to its mantle as a technological innovator and pioneer. The 5% of the workforce, after all, is responsible for nearly 50% of the country’s recent economic expansion.
Almost all recent improvements to the Americans’ living standards have come about as a result of STEM-related breakthroughs.
STEM-related disciplines are responsible for many of the societal innovations that make our world better. Last week, for example, IBM’s Sequoia supercomputer at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory set a world record in computing speed by breaking the 16 petaflop barrier. That represents an astounding 16,000 trillion calculations per second. What could be done with that kind of computing power? Sequoia could run a simulation of how the human heart reacts to new medicine in two days instead of two years.
Nevertheless, only 15% of scientists in the world live in the U.S. and unless immediate steps are taken to increase the number of college graduates with STEM degrees, this proportion will only continue to shrink. One of the first hurdles that the country will need to tackle will be how to keep college students who enter schools with the intention of majoring in science or technology from switching to different major later in their academic careers. Currently, this is happening in nearly 40% of all cases.
Public-private partnerships can help improve this ratio. For example, IBM is a partner in new schools in New York and Chicago that focus on STEM education. Students at these innovative grade-9-to-14 schools will graduate with an associate’s degree, along with the skills and knowledge they need to continue their studies or transition directly into jobs in the information technology industry. The schools also pair students with corporate mentors, who help guide curricula and provide real-world insight into industry trends. Public-private partnerships like this can help invigorate and maintain students’ interest in STEM.
Getting groups currently underrepresented in the STEM fields, like women and minorities, interested in pursuing careers in tech and science will also help increase the number of American engineers. Forty-three percent of students in school today are ethnic and racial minorities, so failing to encourage them to take up STEM subjects may hamstring the U.S. tech industry in the future.