Iowa’s government has collaborated since 2011 with the state’s businesses and educators to encourage students of all ages to pursue courses and careers in STEM fields: science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
The state spends more than $5 million annually on its STEM program, which has been spearheaded by Kim Reynolds, first when she was lieutenant to then-Gov. Terry Branstad and now as governor herself.
The goal, according to the state, is to increase student interest in STEM subjects and fields to improve Iowa’s educational system and workforce.
Some experts, however, are concerned the push toward STEM careers may be too broad — that most STEM fields actually do not have enough jobs available, or that growth is faster in some fields than others.
Some experts think STEM should be more focused on the “T” than the other letters. Technology jobs are growing faster than those in the other fields, according to national and Iowa data.
Despite the labor data, Iowa educators and the governor’s administration remain steadfast in their belief that fostering student interest in all STEM subjects and careers remains an effective way to educate the state’s young people and prepare them for the workforce here.
“We’re kind of answering the bell, and the bell that rallied the launch of STEM in 2011 is that the economy of our state depends on inspiring enough kids to enter these fields to replace the retires and expand” the workforce, said Jeff Weld, executive director of the Iowa Governor’s STEM advisory council and an associate professor of biology and science education at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls. “That’s our calling and that’s our challenge. I’ll be the first to stand up and rally the troops around the STEM imperative.”
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The top 10 most desired skills in workers are computer-related. In the decade ending in 2024, 73 percent of STEM job growth will be in computer occupations, while just 3 percent will be in the physical sciences and 3 percent in the life sciences, according to a recent report in the New York Times.
While all American students should have a working knowledge of science and math, it may be misleading to suggest the country faces a shortage of STEM workers, an expert on science education and policy told the Times. “When it gets generalized to all of STEM, it’s misleading,” said Michael S. Teitelbaum, a senior research associate in the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School.
Iowa job data, from the state’s workforce development department, combines computer and math jobs, so the two cannot be analyzed separately within an examination of STEM careers. The other STEM fields in state-level jobs data are in two more combined fields: engineering and architecture jobs, and life, physical and social science jobs.
The combined field of computer and math is projected to grow more than the other two STEM-related fields in Iowa, according to the data, both in total job openings and in new job openings.
By 2024, there will be more than 1,000 job openings in the computer and math fields. There will be just more than 600 engineering and architecture jobs and just more than 500 science jobs, according to the state data.
State officials said a well-rounded approach to STEM remains the proper course for educating students and preparing workers.
“The goal of the governor’s STEM advisory council is increasing student interest and achievement in STEM. Gov. Reynolds is passionate about advancing that mission,” Brenna Smith, the governor’s spokeswoman, wrote in an email. “It is critical so students can pursue good-paying STEM careers, which in turn are vital to spurring innovation and job creation.”
Smith said the STEM program will help the administration meets its goal of getting 70 percent of the state’s workforce to have post-high school education or training by 2025. That effort is to fill what employers say is a middle skills gap: a lack of workers with the skills necessary to perform jobs in manufacturing, health care and skilled trades.
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Educators said even if students receive education in a STEM field, that education will prepare them for life in a non-STEM occupation, should a job more directly related to their field not be available.
Mark McDermott, the University of Iowa’s STEM coordinator, said he considers his job to improve STEM learning and teaching for all students — kindergarten through college — not necessarily to push them into STEM careers.
“Not so much as a specific way to push students into STEM careers in general or specific STEM careers, but more generally to develop STEM-literate students who could, if interested, pursue further STEM learning and at least be prepared to enter STEM careers if they choose,” McDermott said. “In this way, I would argue we can meet the needs of all students, both those who want to pursue STEM careers and those who may not but will still potentially need to make real-life decisions that are related to STEM fields or STEM concepts.”
STEM studies develop critical thinking and prepare students for emerging jobs and careers that they may not otherwise be considering, he said.
“I guess my main point would be STEM education would be critical for all students.”
Weld said reports that suggest there are more STEM graduates than STEM jobs available miss the ultimate point of STEM studies. He said the job categories in government data do not always align well with STEM jobs; some STEM graduates go on to further study rather than straight into the workforce; and that it’s not uncommon for any professional field — not just STEM careers — to have more graduates than jobs available.
And pushing a student straight from a STEM education to a STEM career is not necessarily the ultimate goal, Weld said.
“STEM has become this transcendent concept that’s more about transdisciplinary study,” Weld said. “The concept of a STEM field leading to a STEM job is kind of archaic.”