Let’s start with STEM. What comes to mind? Plant stems? Long-stemmed roses (or tulips)? Stemware? Stem cells? For those of us who are immersed in the world of science and technology, STEM has a different meaning; it stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. STEM as an acronym has been in use for several years now, but it is hardly a household word. What caused an acronym like STEM to see the light of day anyway? Several years ago, employers and public policy specialists began to realize that we (the U.S. and Canada) are not producing enough home-grown graduates to fill the needs of existing science and technology based companies. As well as posing a huge challenge for technology and technology-supported enterprises, without sufficient young people studying in STEM areas, our capacity for new innovation will suffer. One statistic that comes as a surprise to many is that more than half the post-graduate degrees in science and technology (engineering, computer science, etc.) granted at our universities are earned by international students. It behooves our immigration policies to facilitate those graduates to stay after graduation; in the past many of these graduates have gone on to start very successful technology companies. It also behooves us to encourage more of our young home-grown kids to pursue this path.
Whichever moniker works better to attract and hold public attention, STEM or simply Science and Technology, it’s important that this message reaches as many people as possible – young people, parents, teachers, guidance counsellors, and politicians. And there’s a second part to the STEM message: we need more young women to enter these fields.
Having been an IT professional since before it was called IT (a very long time), I have been involved for years in trying to convince girls to consider the wealth of opportunities available in this field. Sadly, not too successfully. Why is it important for more women to participate in technology careers? First of all, because we need more people, and women, who make up half the population, are seriously under-represented, so having more women would mean more IT workers. But also, technology is integral with almost every facet of our lives, whether it is in health care, environmental protection, retail, education, engineering, construction, marketing, journalism, banking, movie animation, game design, or business analyst; you name it. And if only males are involved in designing, testing, and implementing all the technology we use, we miss a lot. I wrote about this previously in “Where are all the girls in ICT – and why does it matter?“. For a fuller explanation, take a look.
It would be helpful if the media could play a constructive role in communicating STEM issues to the public, but this doesn’t always happen. Before the dot.com bubble burst in 2001 or so, technology programs at universities, community colleges, and private training colleges were full to bursting. But the demand still exceeded the number of graduates. We spent time trying to convince more young women to enter the field then too, for all the reasons I mentioned in my previous post (link above) but most of all just to have more people entering the field. When the bubble burst, at about the same time as 9/11 and a world-wide economic slowdown, the media did a splendid job of writing about the crisis of failed internet start-ups and the fate of unemployed programmers. They were very good at writing about short term negative events, but virtually silent on the fact that a turn-around started within a few years. Funny how good news just doesn’t have the same cachet for news people as bad news. The media did such a good job in conveying the loss in IT jobs in 2001-03 that most people not in the industry seemed to believe that there would never be any jobs in IT again. This outcome has had an extremely detrimental effect on the ability of companies to grow, whether they are technology companies or companies that need good technical support.
Now the campaign to encourage more students to follow STEM paths is facing a new media challenge: misleading stories that post-secondary STEM programs have no room for them. Ple-ease! An article in Saturday’s Globe and Mail (“Fewer spots leading to fierce competition: Students heeding message that their future lies in STEM careers leaves universities struggling to admit everyone who wants to study“) offers what I consider an irresponsible claim that Canadian universities are having to restrict access to STEM programs. By writing this the author implies that a dream to pursue a STEM field may not be reachable. It’s an easy next step for a parent to read this and decide not to encourage their child to “bother with” a future in science or technology.
This journalist has picked one example, and uses general statements from four of the most competitive universities in Canada to suggest that students may have to leave the country to study science or engineering. What kind of disservice is this journalist doing to our hard work in encouraging STEM education, erroneously implying that all our science, engineering, and computer science programs are oversubscribed? This is simply not true. So frustrating.
Media can have a powerful impact for the better or the worse. In the case of providing vital support for STEM fields, I’d like to see more media impact for the better. My own message to young people, parents, and teachers – and especially girls – is this: follow your dreams, but do consider a life in science or technology. If science just isn’t for you, you can participate by being on the support side of STEM, as a writer, a training specialist, or marketing specialist, for example. But consider being a part of it; our future depends on our continuing innovation.