by Lisa Thompson

In past several years, you might have hard the buzz around encouraging students to pursue STEM disciplines in college. “STEM” simply stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Within these four broad categories are a diverse range of fields in agricultural, biological science, computer science, engineering, mathematics, physical science, and technology.


Why is STEM important?

It comes down to global competitiveness—or rather the concern that the United States is losing its competitiveness (.pdf). The demand for workers skilled in the above disciplines continues to grow worldwide, but the United States has been lagging behind in producing enough graduates to fill the needs of the workforce. Not only is the typical high school graduate under-prepared for today’s knowledge- and information-based economy, but fewer and fewer have been interested in entering STEM fields. This hurts home-grown innovation and results in an over-reliance on foreign workers. The STEM education coalition hopes to reverse this trend by working with K-12 schools to improve STEM education to attract and prepare a new generation of students, especially women and students of color, who are historically underrepresented in those fields.


How does Minnesota stack up?

Like the rest of the nation, Minnesota is working to increase the number of STEM degrees awarded to stay competitive regionally, nationally, and internationally. As of the 2007-2008 academic year, 17.3 percent of all bachelor's degrees awarded in the state were in STEM disciplines according to the Minnesota Office of Higher Education:


  • 1,941 in biological and biomedical science
  • 1,046 in engineering
  • 838 in computer and information science
  • 710 in physical science
  • 420 in mathematics and statistics
  • 299 in natural resources and conservation
  • 201 in agriculture, agricultural operations, and related sciences
  • 168 in engineering related technologies
  • 158 in multi-interdisciplinary studies in science disciplines
  • 5,781 total bachelor’s degrees awarded


But all is not roses. In the 1999-2000 academic year, 18.4 percent of all bachelor's degrees (or 4,275 total) were awarded in STEM disciplines. So while the overall the number of STEM degrees awarded in the past decade has increased, they represent a smaller share of all bachelor’s degrees award in Minnesota.


 Not All STEM Careers Are Growing at the Same Pace

Another important point if you’re considering a STEM field is that not all STEM careers are in demand equally.  What this means is that some fields have an oversupply of candidates. For example, even before the recession, a recruiter of scientific talent indicated that they had 10 applicants for every job available for those who majored in biology. In sharp contrast, the demand for IT professionals was predicted to outstrip supply. Pre-recession numbers of all projected STEM job openings between 2004-2014 (.pdf) indicated that the vast majority (56 percent) of STEM job openings would be in IT.


STEM Knowledge Goes Beyond STEM Careers

Even though the rate of growth of STEM jobs is projected to outpace other jobs, those jobs represent a small number of the total project openings. A 2007 presentation from Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (.pdf) indicated that almost three-fourths of occupations requiring STEM knowledge were not in fact STEM jobs. And that issignificant.


Even if you’re not in or planning to enter a STEM career, STEM skills are relevant to many careers, fields of study, and industries. They prepare you for the 21st-century workforce by teaching you how to:


  • think critically and problem solve
  • research to find answers to questions
  • use and adapt to new technology


In a more general sense, everyone needs math skills to solve real-world to problems. Some careers like insurance sales, nursing, marketing, and aviation use math on a regular bases. For another reason to take advanced math in high school, consider this: The highest level of math taken in high school is better predictor of bachelor’s degree attainment than socioeconomic status, according to the U.S. Department of Education (.pdf).


General science knowledge is also invaluable. Having a firm grasp of science helps you understand how science affects you, your community, and the world. That, in turn, makes you a more informed citizen.


Where do we go from here?

As a long-term effort, it’s too soon to judge the effectiveness of the nationwide STEM efforts. Those K-12 students most influenced by it haven’t graduated from high school yet, but that will change soon. In a few years, the first wave will enter college. For the initiative to be successful, these students will not only need to choose a science, technology, engineering, or mathematics major, but they also need to persist to graduation. Only time will tell.