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Thursday, Apr 17, 2014

STEM: An evolving quandary


By most accounts, 1957 was a year like any other, in spite of the looming recession. It was a time when bobby socks, poodle skirts, letterman sweaters, pedal pushers and saddle shoes were the norm in homes and schools across the country. On the surface, life appeared to be much simpler. Cars, gasoline, and homes were still affordable, televisions were becoming more common in homes, and Elvis took center stage, overshadowing Ricky Nelson, Pat Boone, and Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand.”

But 1957, with all its memories, was also a year of dramatic change. That Oct. 4, the American educational system received a sharp and dramatic awakening when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik into a low elliptical orbit around Earth, starting the space race and the ensuing fervor to increase the focus on science and mathematics in our public schools.

Not since the launch of Sputnik has there been such a national educational imperative, but STEM, or more technically, Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, is proving to be every bit the driving force, and perhaps more so, behind what is taught in our school systems, from kindergarten through doctoral programs. Unfortunately STEM, as a term, has been so over-used by those inside and outside of academia that its true character and implications may never be fully understood.

Anyone within a stone’s throw of education these days understands that STEM stands for the four significant disciplines (aka fields of study) of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The Sputnik launch in 1957 set education in America on a course where science and mathematics were to become the key measures of academic success for school systems, colleges and universities nationwide.

The national STEM discussion has escalated significantly in recent years in direct proportion to the size of the federal bandwagon, and although various authors and stakeholders tend to define STEM in disparate terms supportive of their agenda or message, there is a consensus that preparing our students for careers in STEM disciplines is a national imperative. One cannot find a single argument against the value of STEM educational programs and the significant benefits that accrue to participating students and to the economy.

A quandary surfaces, however, when one compares the many opinions on how best to prepare students for entry into a STEM career or discipline, or even what constitutes a STEM career. Some advocate that merely increasing the rigor of our science and mathematics curriculum, raising high school graduation requirements, and expanding Advanced Placement (AP) course offerings is sufficient to address the problem, a short-sighted approach very close to that adopted in Florida. Such perspectives clearly satisfy the STEM pundits in government and academia, however, industry continues to voice concerns about the continued failure of our schools and universities to produce sufficiently qualified individuals for occupations comprising the STEM disciplines.

The quandary

Last year in Florida, Gov. Rick Scott created Florida Polytechnic University (FPU) with an initial budget of $33 million and a goal of creating more STEM programs. On the surface, this seems like a very good move, especially since FPU is required to confer at least 50 percent of its degrees in STEM fields. But what does this mean? Which STEM fields will be supported, and why do we need more programs to support them? Which new programs are going to be created? What STEM occupations are critical to Florida? Which definition of STEM will they use to first identify, and then prioritize their programs? What foundational programs need to be in place to support STEM occupations and programs critical to Florida’s economic development?

The answers to these questions require a uniformly adopted definition of STEM, something that continues to elude STEM advocates within Florida’s government and academic entities. But, quite honestly, it’s not for wont of trying. There have been several attempts in recent history to make headway in Florida, but a consensus is still not there.

Although every aspect of STEM speaks to the occupations and the talent pool necessary to support economic growth, STEM in this state continues to be treated as an academic issue, not a workforce issue. The Florida Department of Education adopted its definition of STEM and their list of 50 STEM occupations from a brief published by the U.S. Department of Commerce, an entity that is not responsible for defining occupations. The Department of Labor, whose job it is to define occupations, had 167 occupations on its STEM list. The 329 STEM fields identified by the Department of Homeland Security (for the purpose of extending the visas of foreign STEM university students) translates into 239 discrete STEM occupations.

There was a glimmer of hope, however, a few years ago when a statewide council called STEMflorida was formed by Workforce Florida with a goal of bringing together key stakeholders from industry, education, and government to get their arms around the STEM issue and providing a stake-in-the-ground for various STEM activities around the state. The member list of STEMflorida is indeed impressive, and most people would recognize many of the players. Unfortunately, you won’t find many people in the state who even know STEMflorida exists.

Despite having all of the ingredients necessary to set statewide and cross-agency priorities and policies for ensuring a viable STEM talent pool essential to Florida’s economy in place, STEMflorida appears to have fallen victim to the competing interests and disparate agendas of its state level members. In evidence, though STEMflorida arrived at a unified definition of STEM, it was different than the one Florida DOE adopted from the commerce brief.

Care to guess which one DOE follows? STEMflorida also identified, in concert with the Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO), a total of 217 STEM occupations; however, only 14 of them made it to DEO’s Statewide Demand Occupations List (DOL). If you’re not familiar with this list, it is used as the primary mechanism for setting priorities for funding and decisions statewide for offering programs of study in our schools. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist (no pun intended) to see the big disconnect here. You can be sure that even though the opinions and priorities of Florida’s industry leaders have not wavered, without a forum sanctioned at the governor’s level and supported by the Legislature, STEMflorida will ultimately be relegated to just another advisory council that blends into the background.

So, how are we to determine which programs to implement? The costs for many STEM programs can be quite large, so it’s essential to make sure that our public dollars are spent wisely. The Florida State University System has apparently received its charter, but where is the STEM charter for the remainder of the public education system, the part that is responsible for grooming students for success in university STEM programs?

In a time when the pace of technological change would set Alvin Toffler on his heels, the call for leadership at the state level is imperative and decisiveness is critical. Resolution and direction cannot be the result of yet another five-year study or drawn out plan to effect change systemically so as not to offend the sensitivities of constituents or special interests. Furthermore, we cannot expect to create and maintain a viable STEM talent pool if our vision is limited much like that of a frog from the bottom of a well.


As the technological profile of the STEM workforce continues to evolve at an ever-increasing rate, and the gaps between disciplines become less discernible, our educational system cannot continue to operate as a monolithic machine, but should look to better ways in which to be responsive to industry and the changing world.

An extraordinary amount of funding from the federal government is allocated to improving STEM education each year. Expenditures in direct support of STEM education activities are generally automatically tied to science and mathematics learning activities, but like the proverbial red-headed stepchild, expenditures for CTE STEM programs must be justified as being STEM, even though STEM only has relevance in occupational terms … and yes, “scientist” and “mathematician” are both occupations. Though it requires an integrated approach, STEM cannot continue to be driven by an academic agenda.

To be fair, Florida is leading the pack when it comes to embracing STEM and attempting to weave it into their public and educational policies. But we have a long way to go before we can say we’re No. 1. The efforts of STEMflorida, the Florida Center for Research on STEM (FCR-STEM), and stakeholder state agencies, however, still remain siloed, still mired in the status quo, and still fall short of being considered groundbreaking. Were it not for the 38 percent attrition rate of students dropping out of the STEM pipeline in college, the status quo may be acceptable to some in positions of power, but when it comes to STEM, status quo is just another word for stagnant.

Academia, industry and government need to come together again to reach agreement on what officially constitutes a STEM occupation in Florida, to define specific STEM occupations that are essential to Florida’s economic future, and to articulate the continuum of educational programs from secondary through baccalaureate necessary for students to enter and maintain Florida’s STEM talent pool. Additionally, the Legislature needs to cease trying to resolve occupational issues with academic solutions, and start integrating technology education into high school graduation and middle school promotion requirements as is done successfully in a number of other states. Lastly, digital and cyber literacy needs to be acknowledged and supported by the governor, and budgeted as a statewide imperative.

Duane Hume, former supervisor for IT/Engineering and Technology Education with the Florida Department of Education, is a senior partner with Integrated STEM Instructional Systems, LLC, a veteran-owned Florida-based provider of educational consulting services and STEM instructional materials. ISIS senior partners include retired Rear Adm. Jon W. Bayless of Tampa.