If you haven’t heard much about STEM careers, that will soon change. There’s a major push under way to raise awareness about these hot careers.
STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. There’s a huge, growing demand for workers in these fields.
There are many hundreds of careers that fall under the umbrella of STEM. They range from geneticists to mechanical engineers to water resource specialists. What they all have in common is that they apply scientific skills to real-world problems.
“There are really important problems that we need people trained in the STEM areas to solve,” says Penny Rheingans. “And we’re not producing enough of them.” Rheingans is director of the Center for Women and Information Technology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Bob Kolvoord is a professor of integrated science and technology at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He’s also co-director of the Center for STEM Education and Outreach. He says this is an exciting time for those interesting in STEM careers.
“I think this is a great time for students to look at STEM careers because of the diversity of possibilities that STEM careers offer,” says Kolvoord. “I think too often students hear the words ‘STEM career’ and they only see somebody in a white lab coat who’s inside all day.
“They don’t see the environmental scientist who’s out trying to sort out what’s happening with the oil spill in the Gulf,” he adds. “Or they don’t see the bioscientist who’s working out in the community trying to understand causes of cancer.”
Why is there such a need for STEM workers? Partly it’s due to the aging workforce — a trend that’s affecting a number of careers. And it’s largely due to the rapid rate of development in technology. Change requires lots of people to understand, develop and manage it.
“Advances in technology are… not only ubiquitous, but they’re so fast now,” says Robin Berk Seitz. She’s chair of the Girls in Technology Committee, a committee of Women in Technology. Berk Seitz says it’s very difficult to keep up with all the changes.
“If you look, in general, at the rate of change in technology innovations, it is so rapid now, and it is so difficult to keep up, you really have to be a specialist, and you really have to be involved at all times,” she adds.
“It’s hard to say how many STEM careers will be available in the coming years. But it’s safe to predict that there will be no shortage of career opportunities.
“I work a lot in GIS (geographical information systems), and I would argue that everything that’s done within GIS has a STEM component, but I’m not sure it’s always counted,” says Kolvoord. “So I think counting [the number of job openings] is hard.”
Speaking of numbers, keep your calculator handy if you’re thinking of pursuing a STEM career. Taking math courses is one of the best ways to prepare for these fields.
“I would say that the more math they take, the better off they are, because math really serves as the base layer for anything that we do in STEM,” says Kolvoord.
And while math is very important, don’t neglect your people skills. STEM careers involve a lot of collaboration and communication with others.
“We’ve created a stereotype of the lone wolf working by themselves in the lab, and what we’re finding in our academic programs and in the jobs that students pursue is that the social piece is really critical,” says Kolvoord. “We have to have people who can function on teams. We have to have people who can interact across disciplines. And it’s not OK to be brilliant in one area if you can’t communicate and collaborate.”
Rheingans believes more young people would go into STEM careers if they knew what a difference they could make in the world.
“There are huge amounts of ways you can do good for the world using technology, but there isn’t this societal belief of that,” says Rheingans. “So if anyone wants to take their strong math and analytical skills and go off and do good, they go into the life sciences (like medicine or biology).”
If you want to tackle important problems in the world, a STEM career could be just the ticket.
“Our world is becoming more and more reliant on technology, and so that means that the solutions to a lot of the world’s problems are going to be technological solutions,” says Brief.
“So if somebody cares about the environment, or if somebody cares about health care, or really, if someone cares about something in the world, there’s likely going to be a technological answer to a problem,” she adds. “And if they go into [a STEM field], they could be the people designing those solutions.”