Will someone please put the STEM in presidential politics?
As I write this, we are a year away from the presidential election of 2016, but the campaigning, debates, rhetoric and interminable media coverage have already been going on for months. Many are sick of it, and the race hasn’t even started to heat up yet. We are still months away from the official selection of nominees by the two major parties, and yet the airwaves are filled with “expert” analyses about campaign strategies by those who have declared their candidacy.
An early start to the campaign season is good for one thing, however. It gives time to more fully vet the candidates and hear them debate the issues at hand. So far, the televised debates have been full of candidates fielding questions asked by media headliners who seem to forget that their job is to report the news and not try to make it. Whether on the candidates’ stage or the moderators’ desk, the debates just as often resembled a political three-ring circus as a serious debate on the issues. If the candidates weren’t going at each other, the press and candidates were.
Moderators of these debates seem to pride themselves on their insightful and carefully worded questions. But to me they sometimes miss obvious issues. For example, I have yet to hear a question from the moderators about what the candidates will do to elevate the levels of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education in the U.S. I believe this to be a core issue necessary for the long-term survival of the innovative spirit and the manufacturing sector of this country.
This theme, though maybe trite to some, is still an important one. Our educational system is graduating fewer and fewer STEM-educated graduates and awarding more and more liberal-arts degrees. I am not suggesting there is anything wrong with a degree in art history or English, but our system has systematically failed to attract those to the STEM disciplines in sufficient numbers.
Our society is just getting past the derogatory stigma of calling those who study and excel in rigorous technical disciplines “geeks.” Thanks to the likes of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and many others, however, geeks have achieved some measure of coolness in our culture. This has even spilled over onto network TV, where The Big Bang Theory is a popular comedy show – about geeks.
On a more serious note, an international analysis of children in the 34 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries found that young people in the U.S. tested 21st overall in education – closer to the bottom than to the top of the list. This overall ranking is the average of being 17th in reading, 20th in science and 27th in math. This in itself is not such a big deal, but I personally don’t get the sense that we are heading in the direction of improvement. In fact, I wonder whether we have enough good teachers to nurture students’ interest in STEM education.
In the long run, our industry can only be as optimistic as the young people who will come in and manage its future. These are the people who are now spending their college years learning time, temperature and transformation curves instead of torts; who study microstructures instead of marketing sizzle; and who get more excited in a laboratory than by a leveraged buyout. We are grateful for them.
In fairness, there is nothing wrong with a diversely educated populace, but our economy can only be advanced by a skilled and sophisticated workforce led by technologically savvy managers. STEM education may not be the primary issue in the 2016 general election in 11 months, but I sure would like to see it discussed in the political debates yet to come.