Reclaiming STEM

Who really works in science, technology, engineering and math

by Davie Jane Gilmour,  president

Published March 23, 2021

STEM — the acronym coined by the National Science Foundation two decades ago to mean “science, technology, engineering and mathematics” – is practically a household term.

Schools have been working hard to ensure K-12 students are receiving solid STEM programming. STEM Days help to connect kids with fun science, technology, engineering and math activities.

Educators, legislators and business leaders are all on board. There are countless complex problems waiting to be solved. To confront them, we need citizens who are well-versed in STEM.

But for all the recognition STEM has received, evidence shows that many high school students still cannot imagine careers that relate to those subjects.

In one example, a survey by Randstad North America found that 56% of students age 11 to 17 do not know what kind of math jobs exist, yet 64% rate creating video games as “very fun.”

That disconnect appears to indicate that there is confusion – or at least a lack of clarity – about what a STEM career is.

Among many, there is a misconception that STEM careers are only those that include a long list of credentials after a person’s name or entail solitary work in a research laboratory.

But STEM encompasses far more. It does include licensed professional engineers and registered architects, but it also includes the surveyors, estimators, project managers, carpenters, HVAC technicians, electricians and others who are part of their teams.

Indeed, cardiothoracic surgeons are part of the STEM workforce, but so are radiographers, nurses, surgical technologists, paramedics, physical therapists and countless others responsible for successful patient outcomes. The kind of professionals who are educated at Penn College.

The STEM workforce includes a well-rounded mix of employees with associate, bachelor’s and advanced degrees.

Why misperceptions persist
A recent PEW Research Center survey found that more than half of adults believe students don’t pursue STEM careers because they think the subject matter will be too difficult. At Penn College, parents have similarly expressed that they initially did not investigate STEM careers for their children because they believed they were for the elite few who are willing to spend years pursuing advanced degrees.

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Caitlin McCarthy, '19, is now a critical care medicine and ICU physician assistant for Geisinger Medical Center.

Given the way that STEM is frequently discussed, those misperceptions may be forgiven. As the PEW survey explains: “There is no single standard for which jobs count as STEM, and this may contribute to a number of misperceptions about who works in STEM and the difference that having a STEM-related degree can make in workers’ pocketbooks.”

The reality is that STEM is a way of thinking and problem-solving that applies to a wide range of fields.

Penn College offers 100 majors that lead to careers in many of those fields.

In fact, Penn College’s roots are in STEM education (although the popular acronym didn’t exist until 2001). Since 1914, when the Williamsport School District began offering hands-on classes in woodworking and machining in its new high school building, the institution that evolved into today’s national leader in applied technology education has been teaching students to use science, technology, engineering and mathematics as tools to impact industries and communities – and sustain their own livelihoods.

The difference it has made in Pennsylvania and beyond includes World War I veterans who retrained for new careers after returning from Europe; businessmen who lost their jobs during the Great Depression and were retrained for the skilled positions that remained unfilled in Williamsport-area industry; and countless students who have come to the college’s campus in the ensuing decades seeking “degrees that work.” In the era of COVID-19, their impact has been proven as graduates fill essential roles and help entities around the globe find new ways of doing business.

Those degrees have worked for graduates, industry and society, thanks to partnerships the college established with industry in its earliest days.

Those partnerships remain crucial as Penn College students acquire professional career skills in hands-on courses taught by faculty with relevant real-world experience. That instruction takes place in facilities and labs that feature industry-standard equipment provided by industry-leading companies.

Business and industry representatives serve on the college’s academic advisory committees, providing expert counsel on curriculum-related matters. And when workforce cues indicate the college needs to change course with its expansive menu of academic offerings, it nimbly makes those changes.

The result is an overall graduate-placement rate of 98%, which reaches 100% in many majors.

More and more colleges are choosing to follow the model Penn College and its predecessors have had in place for a century.

If a prediction that 47% of today’s jobs may simply vanish in the next decade proves true, workers’ willingness to adapt to new technology will be vital to success in the workforce.

Why it’s important
According to the PEW research, growth of employment in STEM has markedly outpaced the growth of overall employment.

STEM workers with some college education make 26% more than those in non-STEM fields. Interestingly, STEM training in college leads to higher compensation whether the individual winds up in STEM fields or not.

But the importance lies beyond the paycheck.

STEM jobs are essential.

“In an ever-changing and complex world, it’s more important than ever that our nation’s youth are prepared to bring knowledge and skills to solve problems, make sense of information and know how to gather and evaluate evidence to make decisions,” posits the U.S. Department of Education. “These are the kinds of skills that students develop in science, technology, engineering and math.”

About half of STEM workers are employed as health care practitioners and technicians, including nurses, physicians and surgeons, as well as medical and health services managers. Those positions must be filled for the health of our communities.

Outside of health care, there are more than half a million open jobs in manufacturing today, according to a study by Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute. The state Department of Education reports more than 17,000 unfilled computer science and software development jobs in Pennsylvania.

And if a prediction by Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute that 47% of today’s jobs may simply vanish in the next decade proves true, workers’ willingness to adapt to new technology will be vital to success in the workforce.

To meet the increasing need for tomorrow makers with problem-solving skills, STEM Days that teach younger students about the real world of STEM careers are vital. And at Penn College, every day is STEM Day.