How STEM Education Contributes To Career and College Readiness

STEMscopes Staff | Published  December 02, 2022

We've previously discussed the benefits of STEM in early childhood education– but what about its benefits for students beyond secondary education? In this blog, we'll uncover the impact of STEM on college and careers. Read on to find out how STEM is shaping the future of our workforce.




Over the past decade, there has been increasing concern about American students’ STEM skills and readiness for STEM careers and college STEM majors. A 2017 ACT analysis found that only one-quarter of all US high school students met a college STEM readiness benchmark. NAEC scores and the US standing in an annual international math and science study have also declined in the past decade.

And industry analysts and business leaders alike worry about the difficulty of filling technology-related positions with tech-competent workers, especially as new needs emerge in the future.

Greater attention from educators and researchers and—especially in the wake of the pandemic—significantly increased federal funding for public education have brought new energy to K-12 STEM teaching.

Yet amid a teacher shortage and high levels of teacher burnout, some have questioned the value and efficacy of K-12 STEM preparation and its impact on student success in STEM majors and subsequent STEM careers.

How exactly does primary and secondary STEM education help students as college STEM majors and, later, in their STEM careers? And is it beneficial to students who do not pursue STEM careers?

First, let’s take a look at the outlook for STEM careers and what that means for STEM college majors in the US, since these shape the needs for K-12 STEM education.


A promising jobs picture

There are two especially positive things about the future STEM career marketplace: tremendous growth in the number of jobs and above-average pay rates.

Market growth. The number of STEM jobs has been growing strongly for the past decade and is projected to increase at an even faster pace over the next ten years, at about three times the growth rate for the job market as a whole.

Jobs growth is primarily driven by the widespread adoption of technology, including AI, the IoT, robotics, and automation. So—not surprisingly—the greatest areas of growth will be in computer science occupations, already a large proportion of the STEM jobs market. Some examples in this area include

  • software development
  • software quality assurance
  • software testing
  • cybersecurity
  • IT infrastructure
  • computer research science

Growth is also projected in other areas, such as scientific research and development, pharma, and medicine. However, the number of jobs as a whole in these categories will be smaller than for computer science.

Good pay. STEM jobs also pay better. In 2019, the average annual income for STEM jobs was $77,400, well above the overall national average of $46,900. In fact, in 2019, 93 out of 100 STEM occupations, followed by the US Bureau of Labor & Statistics, paid wages above the national average.

Still, in virtually all of these jobs, there are wage gaps for non-white workers and women. However, especially with greater attention to DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) at a corporate level, analysts see STEM careers as an opportunity for traditionally unrepresented demographic groups to improve their economic status through STEM careers.


What will the future STEM job market want to see in our students?

First and foremost, the future STEM job market will exhibit a high degree of uncertainty and rapid change, in several aspects, including:

  • the types of jobs themselves
  • the skills needed to do a particular job
  • the frequency of retraining needed as technology and knowledge evolve

Further, as automation and other innovations are implemented, even jobs that have not traditionally required technological skills will likely require some tech competence.

What this means to teachers is that even students who do not pursue STEM careers will need to develop some level of technological competence and comfort to succeed in their future work life. It also means that many existing jobs will be “re-skilled,” others will disappear, and still other new, currently undreamed-of occupations will emerge.

As a result, the skill set needed by future successful workers is not so much about proficiency in specific tasks or knowledge—rather, it’s about a way of thinking, problem-solving, and collaborating. These skills will give future workers greater resilience when they experience the relentless pace of technological change in college and the working world.

The list of skills will not be surprising to STEMscopes teachers:

  • Analytical thinking and innovation
  • Active learning and learning strategies
  • Creativity, originality, and initiative
  • Technology design and programming
  • Critical thinking and analysis
  • Complex problem-solving
  • Leadership and social influence
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Reasoning, problem-solving, and ideation
  • Systems analysis and evaluation

These skills have been noted by the World Economic Forum as the skills desired by employers of all types for future needs.


Filling the pipeline, creating resilience and persistence

Research from both academia and industry is teasing out the threads in the densely woven tapestry of factors that are hindering students from majoring in STEM subjects, graduating, and entering STEM professions after college. For example, another ACT researcher found that national and local efforts to attract students to STEM majors and STEM careers were not enough: students had to receive preparation for college and careers during their K-12 years.

What does K-12 preparation really entail? Again, it has as much to do with the approach to learning as it does with teaching specific facts, tasks, and procedures.

Thinking like a scientist. As users of STEMscopes know, building a sense of inquiry and engaging students in hands-on, real-world problem-solving are foundational to teaching science, technology, engineering, and math. Students who learn to think and behave like a scientist, using the skills listed above as well as subject-specific knowledge, are more able to adapt to new information, build on what they know, and reason about new inquiries.

The process of working through problems provides an essential foundation for future problem-solving and builds student resilience. This resilience not only applies to their ability to persist while learning about specific topics but also helps them to persist—for example, to see a difficult college program through to graduation.

Eliminating gender and minority bias. Creating a “pipeline” of STEM majors and workers in STEM careers is not solely about skills preparation, however. For example, research by Girls Who Code found that “74% of middle school girls express an interest in engineering, science, and math... but only 0.4% choose computer science as a major when they get to college.” In a survey of adults by global technology and engineering firm Emerson, two out of three women said they weren't encouraged to pursue a STEM career while in school.

And education researchers found a “persistence gap” between undergraduate minority students and white students: while all the students chose STEM majors at the same rate, the minority students were much more likely to change to non-STEM majors partway through college.

They attributed this to deep-seated “opportunity hoarding” by whites in high school and earlier—that is, more opportunities to learn and practice STEM skills, which accumulated throughout their secondary schooling, so they had greater competencies and a greater edge when studying within STEM college programs.

They also found that while the quality of primary and secondary STEM teaching was a factor in Hispanic students’ resilience, it was not a factor for black students; they concluded that it could only be attributed to racial bias.

As we discussed in our deep dive into diversity, equity, and inclusion in the classroom, the teacher’s role here is paramount—and can take ongoing self-examination. Naturally, it involves presenting the same material to all students (equality), but it may also entail covering earlier material that some students may have missed (equity) due to learning loss during COVID, lack of access to remote technology, language learning, or any other needs.

It includes using subtle cues that make the material more engaging or accessible to minority students (inclusion), for example, using character names and scenarios they can relate to in lesson hooks and ensuring that both female and male scientists and mathematicians are represented.

And it involves some self-examination to ensure that you, the teacher, are not showing positive bias to some students or negative bias to others. It may be tempting to allow some challenged students to bypass the productive struggle they need in order to think successfully through a problem, but the encouragement and judicious assistance you give may be exactly what a student needs to internalize the rewards, satisfaction, and resilience of persisting.

Persisting. Let’s take a moment to look at persistence. Studies by ACT researcher Paul Hetrick have found that “high levels of precollege academic achievement are associated with students choosing STEM majors when they enter college and also with persistence and STEM degree completion.”

Hetrick found that students with higher scores on their ACT tests in high school tended to have higher GPAs in college, were more likely to choose a STEM major, and had higher completion rates—that is, they graduated with a degree in that STEM major. Their persistence in sticking to their program of study was an indicator of success that Hetrick argues is more important than their intention to pursue a STEM career or interest in a STEM major.

One aspect of building or supporting persistence is expectation: that is, expecting students to prevail and succeed, even or especially when they’re struggling. Students often remember their teacher’s positive expectation that they will figure something out much longer—and at a deeper emotional level—than they remember the material they were struggling with.

High expectations may make an especially strong impression on minority students or girls who may be getting social messages from elsewhere that they are not good candidates for STEM majors or STEM careers.


The change agent in the classroom

The primary or secondary school STEM teacher has the power to celebrate and support persistence in every student, whatever their academic level or demographic profile.

Science and math teachers also have the ability to model a scientific approach to problem-solving of all kinds, laying a firm foundation for the problem-solving skills and resilience that students will need as STEM majors, STEM workers, and tech-competent inhabitants of the future.

And finally, STEM teachers today have a unique potential to decrease gender, racial, and minority biases in the STEM fields of the future. By teaching every child how to think like a scientist and expecting them to succeed, today’s STEM teachers have the power to build a pipeline of STEM-ready college students, professionals, and citizens in the future.

Are you interested in learning more about STEM? Take a look at this.

Can't get enough STEM? Learn more about how STEMscopes can support your students as they build their college and career 21st-century skills. 







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