Math, science career paths not emphasized

Now that everyone has returned from the Christmas – sorry, “holiday” – break, it’s time to be re-immersed in classes, assignments and lectures.

The goal of this laborious and costly exertion is a diploma, which should indicate a fundamental level of expertise in some area.

With today’s proliferation of knowledge and specialties accompanied by a corresponding expansion of majors, choosing a field of study can be challenging.

During my last class for the semester, I tell students how to become rich. First, find something you love. Second, make sure people need it. Third, make sure they’re willing to pay for it. It’s simple but not easy.

There’s a lot of advice about career planning these days. “Follow your passion” is one of the more common bromides being bandied about. It sounds deceitfully simple.

It’s also incomplete and misleading.

Sometime, somehow, somewhere, we will be faced with obtaining the necessities of life.

It takes money to secure these things. Money won’t buy happiness, but I’ve yet to see a poor, destitute, yet happy person. And some careers are more financially rewarding than others.

This leads to STEM – an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

It’s no secret our nation is falling behind in these areas. It’s also no secret that the enrollment of American students in these areas is also falling.

The United States Department of Education states that while the number of college graduates increased by about 29 percent between 2001 and 2009, the number of graduates with engineering degrees rose by only 19 percent. The number with computer science or information science degrees actually fell by 14 percent.

Why the decline? Part of the problem seems to be the difficult and abstract nature of introductory courses in these areas.

Part of the blame has to be borne by some high schools that do not prepare students for the basic challenges of college academics. And part of the problem lies with the lack of effort by college students.

Richard Arum of New York University and Jospia Roksa of the University of Virginia found that students in their sample studied only 12 to 13 hours a week, half the number of hours spent in 1960.

Students today are not twice as smart, nor are their courses twice as easy as 50 years ago.

A 2011 report by ACT (the people who write the test) states only 45 percent of 2011 high school graduates who took the ACT test were prepared for college level math. The number decreased to 30 percent for those who were prepared for college level science courses.

The consequences are serious.

As a nation, we are becoming increasingly reliant on the international community for our computational, scientific and engineering expertise.

This does not portend well for our future.

When Sputnik was launched in October 1957, the shock and embarrassment in America was almost palpable.

The Soviet success inspired an entire generation to pursue STEM careers.

These people have retired and their successors are also retiring. Who will take their place? At the risk of provoking some of my liberal arts, education and business colleagues, it won’t be graduates with liberal arts, education or business degrees.

A career in STEM is not for everyone. But the option should not be ignored merely because the preparation is arduous. Many satisfying and rewarding careers are the result of rigorous preparation, so choose your majors with care and with an eye on your future hiring potential.

A recent op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal noted a growing demand for workers with unmarketable skills who can be retrained into fields such as plumbing, electrical and auto mechanics.

In response, a letter to the editor noted that there are plenty of workers with unmarketable skills today – liberal arts graduates.

The writer closed by observing that the market will soon teach them what their guidance counselors and college professors didn’t.

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