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Reclaiming STEM education

STEM — the acronym coined by the National Science Foundation two decades ago to mean “science, technology, engineering and mathematics” — has become commonplace in education.

Schools aim to ensure K-12 students receive solid STEM programming. STEM Days connect kids to fun science, technology, engineering and math activities. Educators, legislators and business leaders are on board. Countless complex problems await solutions, and we need a citizenry well-versed in STEM to address them.

But for all the recognition STEM has received, many high school students still cannot envision careers that relate to these subjects. That disconnect appears to indicate a lack of clarity regarding what constitutes a STEM career.

A prevailing misconception is that STEM careers are limited to those featuring a list of credentials after a person’s name, or those entailing solitary work in a research laboratory. But STEM encompasses much more. Yes, 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.

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 types of professionals earning their degrees at Pennsylvania College of Technology.

The STEM realm includes a well-rounded mix of workers with associate, bachelor’s and advanced degrees. A PEW Research Center survey found that more than half of all adults believe students don’t pursue STEM careers because they think the subject matter will be too difficult. At Penn College, parents often confirm they did not explore STEM careers initially for their children because they thought they were for the elite few — those willing to spend years in pursuit of advanced degrees.

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, and Penn College offers 100 majors that lead to careers in many of them.

You could say the college’s roots are in STEM. 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 a 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 to sustain their own livelihoods.

Partnerships the college established with industry in its earliest days remain crucial today. Students acquire professional skills in hands-on courses taught by faculty with real-world experience. Instruction takes place in facilities and labs featuring 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. When workforce cues indicate the college should change course with its expansive menu of academic offerings, it does so nimbly. The upshot is an overall graduate-placement rate of 98 percent, reaching 100 percent in many majors.

According to PEW’s research, STEM growth has outpaced that of overall employment. STEM workers with some college education earn 26 percent 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.

Ultimately, the importance transcends the paycheck. STEM jobs are essential, particularly in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our graduates are filling indispensable workforce roles, helping organizations worldwide find new ways of doing business.

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. Outside of health care, there are more than half a million open jobs in manufacturing, according to various sources.

According to the U.S. Department of Education: “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. These are the kinds of skills that students develop in science, technology, engineering and math.”

Predictions that nearly half of today’s jobs could vanish in the coming decades due to technological advances confirm that workers must be able to adapt and develop STEM-based skill sets to thrive in whatever type of workforce emerges.

While STEM Days have become popular events in schools nationwide, serving to inform younger students about a range of essential careers, at Penn College, we like to think that every day is STEM Day.

Dr. Davie Jane Gilmour is president of Pennsylvania College of Technology.

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