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Education

STEM majors’ popularity reflects society, job force

Tribune staff
Published:   |   Updated: May 4, 2013 at 07:54 AM
TAMPA -

The first graduates at the University of South Florida received their diplomas and headed out into the turbulent world of the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement and the space race.

USF students were overwhelmingly education majors in 1963, destined for the teaching ranks. Flash forward to the go-go 1980s, and they studied business. With the new millennium — and hot new television shows such as “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” and “NCIS” — criminal justice sneaked onto the list of most popular majors.

Today, the nation’s focus on the STEM fields – science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – is reflected in the most popular degrees bestowed at USF. As society changed over the decades, so did USF and the most popular fields of study for its students.

“Financially, culturally, technologically … they’re all reasons we’ve changed the paths that we have taken,” said Joe Badalamenti, manager of the Hillsborough branch of Manpower, one of the world’s largest employment firms.

Drema Howard, director of USF’s career center, concurred.

“A lot of it has to do with shifts in the economy and, now, the emphasis on high demand in the STEM fields,” Howard said. But she said employers today are looking for more than just “content knowledge” from a specific field of study.

“Employability skills, professional development and a sense of knowing how to identify, address, and solve a problem will fit across the board,” Howard said.

With commencement season upon us, a look at the degrees students are earning reflects both society and the institutions.

At Eckerd College, the waterfront school’s motto of “Think Outside” is reflected in its top majors: environmental studies, marine science and biology.

St. Petersburg College is drawing students who may be more focused on health careers, with nursing and health services administration topping the list of degrees. Saint Leo University students’ top fields were management and criminal justice. In what may be a sign of the times, sport business management also made the Saint Leo list. Education is the top major this year at USF St. Petersburg.

And at USF in Tampa, the most popular degrees of psychology and biomedical sciences, joined on the top 10 list by interdisciplinary natural sciences, suggests students are recognizing the potential in a STEM education.

Gov. Rick Scott has pushed more job-generating STEM programs, suggesting those degrees should be cheaper than traditional programs. The university system board of governors has produced a strategic plan aimed at boosting the number of STEM graduates by more than 261 percent by 2025.

And Florida Polytechnic, the new public university set to open in 2014, has exclusively STEM degree programs.

The trend “is a matter of the shift to a knowledge-based workforce,” said Matthew Duvall, director of tech recruiting at Kforce, a Tampa-based employment firm.

Duvall said the United States provides roughly 15 percent of the global total of scientists and engineers, well down from 40 percent two decades ago. “It’s a steadily increasing demand curve, and one of the challenges we’re seeing is keeping up with that curve in the STEM fields.”

Scott took a
shot at the social sciences in 2011 when he told an interviewer he didn’t think state tax dollars should go to support degrees such as anthropology.

Brian Goff begs to differ.

“I would strongly disagree that we don’t need more anthropologists,” said Goff, the outgoing student body president at USF. “We always need bright minds assessing the different liberal arts.”

Goff has treaded both sides of the debate, earning a degree in political science while considering finishing a second degree in biochemistry. He said many of his peers have earned dual majors in both the sciences and liberal arts.

“They are the most well-rounded, well-prepared people in being able to get into the workforce with both feet on the ground, running,” Goff said.

What will a top-10 degree list look like in the next decade or two?

USF has established a new School of Global Sustainability, and Howard of the college’s career center said fields such as renewable energy, forensic engineering and cybersecurity are fields to watch.

“A university is focused on the discovery of new knowledge,” Howard said. “Students are getting exposed to that. They can become the change agents.”


jstockfisch@tampatrib.com

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