I just started eighth grade at a middle school in central Virginia. The school has an excellent reputation, particularly in math and science. Last year, it received national recognition for its STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) program. I enjoy science and math, and I get straight As in those subjects. People tell me that future employers will be falling all over themselves to hire me if I pursue a career in STEM.
Well, for those future employers out there, I hate to tell you, but for me, and for my classmates who are also good STEM candidates, those subjects are far down on our list of career interests.
Why our apathy? First, while we hear science and math careers are fun, interesting, and well-paying, the actual scientists and engineers who visit our schools seem very one-dimensional. Working as an engineer for a utility company or as a biologist specializing in fungi may be fascinating to some people, but that’s not how I want to spend my life. And to pursue and succeed in those one-dimensional jobs, you have to study very hard and get good grades in the most difficult subjects. I don’t mind working hard, but I also want a career that allows me to pursue my full range of interests—like writing, art, and history, as well as STEM topics. I don’t know what that career is yet, but I know what it isn’t.
Another turnoff is the overemphasis on engineering. STEM is supposed to have four parts, each important in its own way. But engineering is presented to us as if it’s the key and the other three areas are there only to support it as needed. For example, we’re told that science may be responsible for important discoveries, but it’s engineering that puts those discoveries to use.
Even as we’re being pushed toward engineering, we aren’t being told or shown what engineering really is. Instead, we’re assigned simplistic exercises like building bridges out of drinking straws and marshmallows or telling a toy robot to turn left and right. Does anyone expect us to make future career decisions based on our ability to create a marshmallow bridge? And while I like solving math problems, what does finding the slope of a line using three different techniques have to do with anything I might do in the future? As I look to the next few years of math and science courses, I fear more of the same disconnect.
A third reason my friends and I discount STEM is the “teamwork” we are told is vital in such work. STEM may well be team oriented, but we aren’t learning how to work in teams. In the marshmallow bridge exercise, the objective was to make the bridge as long as possible but still able to stand on its own. A few students found the assignment pointless and quickly lost interest. The rest argued over the best design. Instead of trying to work as a group to accomplish the goal, our “team” degenerated into mob rule. Our finished bridge consisted of a pathetic two straws connected by a single marshmallow. This distasteful ordeal was repeated in other team activities.
And lest anyone think my experience is somehow my school’s or my teachers’ fault, I’ve been told by friends and relatives attending other schools that they have had similarly negative STEM-related experiences.
So, future employers, take note: STEM is competing with other subjects that my classmates and I find more interesting and relevant. I may still get a STEM degree because I enjoy the subject matter, but don’t count on my pursuing a STEM career. It just doesn’t look very appealing.
About the Author
Maura E. Charette spent part of her summer vacation taking computer animation and theater courses. Her father, Robert N. Charette, wrote “The STEM Crisis Is a Myth.”