Despite the constant efforts to communicate the ‘relevance’ and even the ‘fun’ of STEM subjects, the fraction of school leavers who choose to pursue further study in these disciplines has remained quite static in the last decade, as shown in the figure below. The reasons for the stability of these numbers are debatable but I suspect that the abstract thinking required in science and mathematics does not appeal to the majority. If you think about it, although many branches of science are highly practical and ‘relevant’, the actual process of doing science requires a form of thinking that is predominantly abstract in nature. Much of our ‘understanding’ of the physical world is based on analogy and even imagery. Although those of us who are immersed in science are happy with concepts like ‘ions’ or ‘particles’ or ‘covalent bonds’ or ‘charge’ or ‘receptors’ or even ‘genes’ and ‘wave functions’, the reality is that these are quite abstract ideas even if their effects are very tangible indeed. It is not immediately obvious why people should be innately interested in ideas like these no matter how well they are ‘sold’. On the other hand, it is simpler to see why people might be more interested in the arts and humanities, and the caring professions; these disciplines are actually much less abstract, focusing as they do on the human condition.
Figure 1 Percentage of Level 8 CAO applicants who express a first preference for STEM programmes (STEM is defined here as Groups 1 and 2 in CAO statistics.)
But is this relatively static interest in STEM really a problem for the economy? Consider that the HEA What do Graduates Do? report showed that in 2012 (admittedly at the height of the recession) only 36% of science and mathematics graduates were employed in Ireland nine months post-graduation. Large numbers were in further education.
There are at least two issues to be considered here: (i) the acronym ‘STEM’ is used as if it represented a homogeneous set of disciplines. It doesn’t, and the career opportunities for graduates in disciplines that fall within the STEM umbrella can be radically different; (ii) the economic need for a STEM-educated workforce, especially one with a high degree of mathematical ability, is by no means established. The presence of a large number of tech-based industries in Ireland is taken as evidence for this need for large numbers of STEM graduates but this is woolly thinking. It does not differentiate between the various STEM disciplines and it is not based on any evidence that a high level of science and mathematics (in particular) is routinely used in business and industry. There is no do doubt that the modern workplace requires numeracy, literacy and familiarity with the use of common software, but the idea that high level mathematical skills are required is by no means proven. The basic proposition is this: we live in a high tech world, therefore graduates need to be highly literature in science and mathematics. But this is no more than plausible.
There are a number of actions that need to be taken here:
- The term ‘STEM’ needs to be used far more sparingly and those promoting ‘STEM’ need to be cognisant of the fact that young school-leavers (and their parents) may not have the knowledge required to differentiate between the STEM disciplines and consequently choose career pathways that offer far fewer opportunities than they were led to believe.
- A realistic assessment needs to be made of what level of knowledge in science and mathematics is required by business and industry.
- Given the relatively small number of Irish school-leavers who express a desire to study programmes in science and related disciplines, and the robustness of those numbers, it is worth asking fundamental questions about where Ireland’s future lies and whether the emphasis on STEM is wise.