Focus on STEM competencies

A new study by Tony Carnevale and his colleagues (at the Georgetown University Center for on Education and the Workforce) on STEM (Science, Technology Engineering and Mathematics) makes an important point:

As the nature of innovation changes, the cognitive competencies traditionally associated with STEM are intensifying in a host of non-STEM occupations. The dispersion of cognitive competencies outside of STEM has resulted in an artificial shortage–not of workers, but of workers with STEM competencies.
. . .
The growing demand for STEM competencies outside traditional STEM occupations requires a more broad-reaching strategy in the American K-16 education system. The dialogue on the adequacy of our STEM workforce ultimately leads to the more comprehensive conversation about American education

In other words, we need to focus on the STEM competencies not specific STEM occupational training.
I would even go one step further and argue that we need to associated with STEM rather than just on the traditional training in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
The Appendix A to the full report goes in more detail as to the types of competencies associated with STEM, both skills and abilities. A shorted list of skills include:
• Critical Thinking: Using logic and reasoning to identify the strengths and weaknesses of alternative solutions, conclusions, or approaches to problems.
• Active Learning: Understanding the implications of new information for both current and future problem-solving and decision-making.
• Complex Problem Solving: Identifying complex problems and reviewing related information to develop and evaluate options and implement solutions.
• Operations Analysis: Analyzing needs and product requirements to create a design.
Abilities include:
• Problem Sensitivity: The ability to tell when something is wrong or is likely to go wrong. It does not involve solving the problem, only recognizing that there is a problem.
• Deductive Reasoning: The ability to apply general rules to specific problems.
• Inductive Reasoning: The ability to combine pieces of information to form general rules or conclusions (includes finding a relationship among seemingly unrelated events).
I would suggest that the reason why a certain level of STEM knowledge is so critical is because they teach these foundational skills. But a STEM education is not the only way to acquire this foundation and set of skills. Let’s face it, there are students who are turned off by the traditional STEM educational experience. Rather than blindly push more and more math and science on these students, let’s find away to provide the foundational skills directly. Not everyone needs to understand calculus. But everyone should have a strong grounding in critical thinking, problem solving and inductive and deductive reasoning.
This is not to say that we don’t need to train more STEM specific workers – and give more workers STEM competencies. As the report points out, more and more non-STEM occupation require STEM skills such as the ability to use mathematical formulas and understand probability and statistics. [BTW — probability and statistics is something that we don’t seem to do a good job teaching right now – but that is another story.]
But focusing on the foundational skills for all — and the STEM specific skills where appropriate — will go a long way to strengthening our economic competitiveness.

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