Major in STEM, get a job? This ‘workforce pipeline’ mentality undermines the true value of education — especially in STEM

By Dr. Matthew Young

‘Workforce pipeline’ mentality cuts short the journey through scientific discovery and its pursuit of understanding and truth.

This is a transcript of a lecture presented by Dr. Young, edited for length and clarity.

Among politicians and educational experts, there’s a high value placed on scientific literacy for students these days. Typically, they place great emphasis on the critical importance of the so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields in education.

Yet, some fields of study — for example, Latin, music, art or theater — have to work for respect or, worse, fight not to be completely left out of the conversation.

It’s easy to spot this bias. From a policy level, in most statements you’ll read calling for improving K-12 education in America, science is held to be of paramount importance. In fact, if you listen carefully to politicians, it’s unusual to hear them talk about science education and not make the explicit connection between STEM education and the global economy.

Yet, some fields of study — for example, Latin, music, art or theater — have to work for respect or, worse, fight not to be completely left out of the conversation. STEM fields don’t deal with that. They are being trumpeted as being critically important in education.

Why? What is the rationale for the intense, focused support of STEM as a vital part of our educational system? I’m sure you can guess the reason: jobs.

The government emphasizes these STEM subjects because it thinks it will make students useful in an economic sense. Google the term “STEM,” and you can easily find many examples.

Consider the goals of the STEM Education Coalition. Its checklist reads: “First, STEM education must be elevated as a national priority. Second, our nation’s future economic prosperity is closely linked with student success in the STEM fields. Third, the U.S. must expand the capacity and diversity of the STEM workforce pipeline.” They tout an explicit idea that K-12 schools should function as a STEM workforce pipeline.

Education is much more. It is much richer and deeper than just workforce preparation.

Another example is at www.whitehouse.gov. There, you can read a five-year strategic plan for federal STEM education written by the National Science and Technology Council Committee. The report’s first reason given on why it is critical to invest in STEM education: “The jobs of the future are STEM jobs. The demand for professionals in STEM fields is projected to outpace the supply of trained workers and professionals. Additionally, STEM competencies are increasingly required for workers both within and outside specific STEM occupations.”

The idea that our government needs to improve STEM education in America has been around for some time. Yet it raises other questions: How effective has the government been in centrally planning workforce development, particularly in science education? Is there a critical shortage of workers in the STEM fields? Is there a connection between prosperity and students who graduate with STEM majors? (For further reading, look to Robert Charette at the IEEE Spectrum.)

This emphasis tries to draw students into the STEM fields artificially. It seeks to generate interest in these fields in the hope that these studies will be the exactly what students will need to know in their future careers.

This utilitarian approach often leads to a loss of interest by students in math and science. Such an emphasis can detach the sense of wonder and awe that students should bring to scientific investigations.

The belief that technical knowledge holds the key to economic progress is shortsighted and can be destructive to good science education.

Education is much more. It is much richer and deeper than just workforce preparation. A classic liberal arts education not only steeps students in scientific inquiry, but also better trains their minds not only to work in a global economy, but also for the ethical and moral challenges that the future will bring.

Science fosters curiosity and wonder, encourages hard and careful work, and molds deep thinkers, even intellectuals. Its first goal should not be developing technical experts who can fill job descriptions, but rather liberally educated citizens and human beings.

Learning the fundamental ideas and knowing the historical development of science will lead students to a position where they can thoughtfully consider scientific issues that face our society, such as evolution, global climate change, vaccines or genetically modified foods.

Science is an important part of the human account of reality. It should be included in core curriculums, alongside the study of what is real and what is true. We study science because it contributes to understanding ourselves and understanding our surroundings.

Science addresses deep questions asked by humans, many of which were first asked in antiquity, as we seek to tighten our grip on reality. A couple of examples of these types of questions: What is the nature of light? What is the nature of magnetism? What is the nature of the heavenly bodies? What is the nature of disease? When you start looking at the big scientific questions, you see that people have been wondering about these for a long, long time.

At Hillsdale College, when I advise freshmen, my favorite students are the ones who say, “I’m taking a chemistry course. I’m taking a calculus course. I’m taking an English course. I’m taking a philosophy course. I’m learning a lot in all of these courses, and I’m having a hard time deciding what to major in.”

I tell the student, “That’s right where you should be. Of course, you’ll have to choose a major, but first rigorously study these things. Learn in many different ways.”

Students who have studied science will also develop a healthy skepticism practiced by weighing claims based on evidence. They will know how to ask the question: “What is the evidence for thinking that a certain claim might be true?” There are many claims about the way things are. By discerning and asking questions, students learn to approach complicated questions.

Learning the fundamental ideas and knowing the historical development of science will lead students to a position where they can thoughtfully consider scientific issues that face our society, such as evolution, global climate change, vaccines or genetically modified foods.

When students study science for its own sake and on its own terms, they will be well equipped for jobs in STEM fields. To be clear, I’m not arguing that jobs are not important. But the liberal arts can prepare students to have a solid grounding in science so that, if they so choose, they will be well equipped to go learn the technical knowledge necessary for jobs in STEM fields.

We study science because it answers questions that we’re curious about, and it seeks what is true. Before weighing job prospects, students should study science to know that we live in an orderly, complicated, surprising ,and intelligible universe that can be understood through careful, systematic investigation. This is an amazing and exciting idea. It is worthy of rigorous study and deep reflection.

If science is called on to educate students, then let it teach them fully with all of the awe that the universe can inspire. Then consider what knowledge and deep thoughtfulness a student, liberally educated in the sciences, would bring to our current workforce and the jobs that await him or her in the future.

Matthew Young is chairman of the chemistry department at Hillsdale College, where he is an associate professor of chemistry.