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The Charms and Perils of STEM-H

The Charms and Perils of STEM-H

The current pressure on universities to produce more STEM-H grads is well known.  I did have the pleasure of a recent public presentation in which an audience member did not know what STEM stood for, and I wanted to hug him.  But the enthusiasm for Science Technology Engineering Math (and Health) is familiar enough.  It’s been heavily emphasized by the state administration in Virginia, and one current gubernatorial candidate even talks of cutting scholarships outside the STEM-H area in favor of rewarding the stemmers more fully.  This would be, of course, an effort to stem everything but STEM.

Our current strategic plan, still in draft, correspondingly calls particular attention to growth in STEM; as we promise more graduates overall, we make a particular pledge on STEM-H, to constitute a third of the total over the next decade.  This has occasioned some understandable concern that we’re pulling back from our comprehensive university interests, into an unduly narrow slice of major.  In fact, the 33% figure is what we already do, so it’s not as intimidating as it seems.  And it is also true that we’re seeing particular growth of student interest in the STEM-H fields, so percentages probably will expand at least for a while.

But there are three or four obvious problems with the current fad – not to denigrate the importance of committing to solid educational opportunities in these areas, which is clearly part of Mason’s present and future alike.

First, as has been recently noted, not all STEM-H grads fare as well in the workplace as enthusiasts assume.  Science grads may be at a particular disadvantage, at least in first time jobs.  (Shall we take the S out, and make it THEM?; or maybe, since Technology and Engineering are redundant, merely HEM, or MEH?)  So point one: let’s not overdo the hype.

Second, the undeniable, and probably desirable, surge in STEM-H majors will also have a predictable aftermath, as some initial majors find that they don’t like these subject areas or don’t do well in them. STEM-H may not grow as much as initial declarations suggest, and responsible universities have to help students who change their mind find worthwhile, even exciting options.  It’s important not to let outside pressures, including political pressures, dissuade us from educational balance.

Which relates to the third point: that the STEM-H enthusiasm too often neglects uneven, sometimes downright poor, preparation from some of the secondary schools, which creates sometimes really unfortunate gaps between what students think they want to do in college, and what they can do.  Math, of course, is the pressing problem.   Again, universities have to be ready with alternatives in some cases. And political enthusiasts must realize that they can’t simply create STEM-H growth from thin air: they have to attend to K-12 quality, and they must also realize that STEM-H education at the college level costs more than most other majors.

But most important, and point four: we don’t want just to be educating STEM-H folks.  We also need majors in other key fields, not just to provide options for science-challenged students, but because other fields will be vital for the national future as well.  (Since we just learned that Mason alums with History and English degrees do very well on average by mid-career, this reminder is both salutary and accurate.) We’re shortchanging the power of our research and education in other fields by accepting too much of the external drumbeat on STEM-H.  Even the cute effort to include the arts, by making STEM STEAM, does not do the trick.  We need an intelligently broad educational commitment, not more alphabet soup.  Again, we can be responsible about STEM-H without dimming our excitement about the importance of other areas.

So I would hope we could regain some voice about educational balance, among other things because it is so difficult to predict what students will end up doing with any particular major.  (Not a few scientists, in fact, emerge from humanities undergraduate backgrounds, and vice versa.)  I fear that, in the current rather hostile climate for higher ed, we sometimes accept being shortchanged.