Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics – for some, those words might strike fear. You can Google “high school students’ least favorite subject” and be bombarded with a variety of quizzes and polls, all with the same answer – Math. I’m guilty, too – I’ve just always had a better relationship with words than with numbers. However, I adore science. Science intrigues my inquisitive mind. Ever since I was a little girl, I have always had an affinity for the natural world – plants, trees, animals, and space, especially (despite all the math associated with the subject, one of my most favorites courses I ever took was my Astronomy 100 course at Coastline). I’ve also grown up with a strong understanding and respect for technology, thanks to my Dad who had me on a computer before I could even walk, playing simple learning games he programmed himself. My point for divulging all of this? STEM is everywhere – which is why STEM is not just important, it’s quite literally the foundation of our modern lives. It’s our future.
Even before you start your day, you’ve been affected by someone working in a STEM field. The alarm clock you use to wake you up (whether it’s on your phone or even an “old school” one sitting on your nightstand) was engineered and programmed by someone. Your coffee maker? Also engineered by someone. The car you get into to drive to work or the bus or train you catch? Designed by a team of STEM specialists, ranging from mechanical and automotive engineers to biochemists ensuring its emissions do as little harm to our planet as possible. Every day, in some way, our lives are touched by each of the STEM fields, which translates to a plethora of potential STEM jobs ready and waiting to be filled. In other words – STEM careers are not just in high demand, they’re at the top of the list and won’t be dropping any time soon.
Since this is a blog about STEM, it’s only right to throw some numbers at you. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) 2019–29 employment projections show that occupations in the STEM field are expected to grow 8% percent by 2029, compared with 3.7% for all occupations – that’s over two times faster. Yet there are still millions of STEM jobs that need to be filled – nearly 3.5 million by 2025. So, what’s going on? Why are STEM jobs so high in demand but aren’t getting filled? The root of the problem starts early, with access to STEM-driven education across all levels – from elementary school all the way up through college. As a nation, we really only recently are starting to fully understand the importance of STEM skills and are now stuck in a mad dash of trying to staff a STEM-driven workforce.
To shed some light on all things STEM, I reached out to Coastline Biology & Marine Science professor, Dr. Tanya Hoerer, and Coastline Career Services Specialist, Dr. Paolo Varquez, who both provided some invaluable advice as we discussed the importance of STEM skills, the future of STEM education, and what you need to know about pursuing a STEM career.
A little personal background to start off, what is your primary field and what attracted you to it as a career?
I was trained as a grassland ecologist at Syracuse University, and currently am the Professor of Organismal Biology and Marine Science at Coastline College. I have always been interested in plants and animals and was an avid reader from an early age. I also have always loved being outdoors in nature and took an interest in environmental and animal rights issues when I was in high school. My courses in botany and field ecology really motivated me to pursue graduate work in these fields. It was very important to me to share what I learned from my education and research because I wanted to make a positive impact in how we managed our natural resources. I knew that teaching would be a good way to do this and set the goal of becoming a community college teacher while in graduate school at Syracuse. Now my skills in ecology have translated to research and education in marine science as well, living here in Southern California. As a community college professor here in Orange County, I have also taught Human Anatomy and worked in the industry studying neuroscience. I regularly teach Human Anatomy and Major’s Biology courses currently at Coastline, along with Marine Science and Human Ecology.
Why is it so important for kids to develop STEM skills early in their education?
I think that children have a natural interest in nature and an affinity for investigating their surroundings. This is an easy fit for STEM activities as science is all about inquiry and investigation and using hands-on activities to do this. Inquiry-based learning is very useful for all students as it teaches them logical thought and problem solving, skills that are essential in any field. It also encourages creativity, which is valuable in all fields. Those with an interest in pursuing STEM benefit from early exposure to scientific inquiry and basic principles of physical and life science because they will be better prepared to continue to learn the details of these fields in higher education. Students with a strong math and science background will be less likely to struggle with the challenges of research and more complex scientific topics when they are already comfortable with the basics. For example, my students who are biology majors have to take a semester of evolution and ecology to fulfill their introductory biology requirement and continue to four-year and postgraduate programs, including prep for medical careers. I find students struggle with these topics much more often than with cellular biology because cellular biology is taught starting in elementary school. Evolution and ecology are rarely, if ever, covered before college. The regular exposure to these introductory concepts can make it easier for the students when they have to consider that topic in more depth and in complicated detail because they already have a foundation of knowledge from which they can build in additional details. Having to consider theories that they haven’t been exposed to, students have to spend more time learning the basics, while already being required to understand college-level complexity.
For someone who’s considering a career in a STEM field, what are some things they could/should consider to determine if it’s the right path for them?
They should consider their level of interest in the field of science or math that forms the basis of their field. For example, if they are considering a medical career, do they enjoy learning about the human body? If they are considering engineering, are they comfortable in their math classes and do they enjoy solving problems? They should also consider the amount of training and education their specific career requires and if they are willing to make that sacrifice of time to get to that goal. STEM and medical careers are in demand nationally, and there are several federal, state, and private programs supporting STEM education to help meet that demand. Students should research opportunities for support through scholarships and internships as there are many out there. For example, Coastline was just awarded a grant to award $900,000 in scholarship money to STEM majors completing an Associate Degree for Transfer (AS-T). As part of this grant, faculty and industry partners provide mentorship and work experience in STEM fields in addition to scholarship money each semester for five semesters. There are many similar opportunities available across the country.
For middle and high school students interested in a STEM career, what would be some good advice for them as they work towards graduation?
I recommend that they take their math and science courses seriously and look for other opportunities to become engaged in science in their community. This way they get to see if this is something they enjoy and would be willing to spend a lot of time committed to learning. They also develop more of a foundation of knowledge in STEM topics, making the upper-level courses much easier.
Just about everywhere you look, no matter which news source you reference, STEM careers are some of the most in-demand careers. What makes the STEM fields so important and why are STEM careers so in-demand?
Our world is becoming increasingly technologically advanced as our population continues to grow to overwhelming numbers. In order to sustain this size population, we have to have the technology to stabilize our impact on the planet and manage our health. Development and maintenance of technological and medical advances require knowledge of math and science.
As I write this, Earth Day is fast approaching this week. How much/what kind of an impact do STEM fields have on the planet?
The climate of our planet is experiencing unprecedented changes that continue to cost humans billions in repairs, engineering, and land management. STEM fields train people on how to solve these problems and prevent further damage by developing more sustainable ways to travel, and to manufacture and ship food and goods. Practices that are not sustainable will not be supported by the planet, so we are under a lot of pressure as a species to remedy the impact that humans have already had on our environment. STEM fields also conduct the research that explains how and why human activities impact the stability of our environment.
The STEM fields are typically associated with “left-brained” people, those that are more analytical and methodical. Do you think there are any opportunities in the STEM fields for someone who might be more “right-brained,” whose strengths are more artistic and creative? If so, what do those opportunities look like?
Creativity is essential in STEM fields. Creativity contributes opportunities to solve problems by facilitating new ways of investigating and interpreting situations. It is also very important to communicate the results from research in STEM fields, and this requires both artistic and creative abilities. Most STEM professionals I know play a musical instrument, paint or draw, and/or enjoy writing and literature. It is a natural fit. Also, journalism, art, music, teaching, and activism are all aspects of STEM that are less traditionally considered and could be a fit for some of the more “right-brained” individuals.
What does the future of STEM education look like to you?
It is going to take a lot of work and commitment, but we have a lot more support and knowledge now than we used to! There is a lot more networking as well, resulting in more opportunities for students to engage in STEM fields and prepare for STEM careers.
For students working towards a STEM career, are there any career-building resources they could be taking advantage of? Any that might specialize in the STEM fields?
One of the best moves a student can do is start gaining experience, whether it’s an internship, volunteer work, or a job that’s related to the type of occupation that you’re pursuing. A lot of career resources can be found on the Coastline career center page. Also, students should start talking to their professors in case they ever need a letter of recommendation down the line, especially if they plan on pursuing advanced degrees.
Internships are usually one of the best ways for a student to get their foot in the door of their chosen career field. Do you have any advice on how students can find good STEM internship opportunities?
Internships or any relevant experience (e.g., volunteering, jobs in the same area) will benefit students long-term because of the skills you acquire and the networks that you build. This also strengthens your resume, which increases your chances of getting hired. You can check out internship opportunities on the career center page.
Just about everywhere you look, no matter which news source you reference, STEM jobs are some of the most in-demand. What is your advice for someone considering such an in-demand career?
One great piece of advice is to identify people who are currently working in a position that you’re pursuing and asking them questions, so you know what they do. Sometimes what you hear on TV is not how it actually is in real life, so talking to folks who are currently doing the work can give you a preview and some insights into what the day-to-day actually is.
Also, set an appointment with a counselor so they can help set you up towards a major or program that best aligns with the STEM job you’re pursuing.
One additional aspect of the STEM workforce that should be mentioned is fairly alarming: many studies have shown that diversity within the STEM workforce still needs a drastic amount of work. Black and Hispanic workers still remain underrepresented and the representation of women significantly varies across the different STEM fields (for instance, in healthcare jobs women make up nearly half of the workforce, whereas they are still incredibly underrepresented in the computing and engineering fields). Many experts agree that this lack of diversity can be both contributed to and remedied by one major thing – exposure and access to STEM education. While it certainly is starting to step into the spotlight in the curriculum of high schools and colleges, there is still an alarming number of primary schools across the country that don’t adequately address the development of STEM skills in young students. This needs to change, and soon, if we’re going to be able to keep up with the many points of rapid evolution our planet is experiencing, from the advancement of technology in the workplace to global issues like our planet’s climate and dying ecosystems.
As Dr. Hoerer and Dr. Varquez both helped make clear, STEM jobs and the desperate demand for candidates to fill them aren’t going anywhere any time soon. Whether you’re a young student just starting to decide on the trajectory of your career or you’re an established adult thirsting for a change of scenery, chances are there’s a STEM-based career calling your name, and it just might be time to answer that call!