Thursday, October 25, 2012

Why "Change the Equation" is wrong-headed about its definition of STEM

Thanks to a posting from the Chemistry Grad Student and Postdoc Blog, I was introduced to the interesting organization "Change the Equation", which is dedicated to increasing U.S. standards in STEM education. I would have happily supported or ignored this older Huffington Post blogpost about the issue, except for these interesting comments from their CEO, Linda Rosen:
But for those with a science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) background the picture is much brighter. Across the STEM fields, job postings outnumbered unemployed people by almost 2-to-1. Even in a tough economy, STEM is where the jobs are. 
...The demand for STEM skills extends well beyond STEM-specific jobs, and the number of jobs requiring a STEM background is expected to have grown 17 percent between 2008 and 2018, far faster than the 10 percent growth projected for overall employment.
Ms. Rosen is referencing the data in their report "STEM Help Wanted", where they reveal an interesting and unusual definition of "STEM" (emphasis mine):
There is no single, universally accepted definition of what constitutes a STEM-specific job. Our definition is broader than some, in that it encompasses those healthcare and management occupations that require strong STEM skills. We feel this broader definition allows us to offer a fuller account of the demand for STEM talent. 
Our definition includes Computer and Mathematical occupations, Architecture and Engineering occupations, Life and Physical Science occupations, several Management occupations in STEM fields, and select Healthcare Practitioner and Technical occupations. In 2011, there were about 13.6 million people in these jobs, and they comprised about 11 percent of the total workforce.
I find this to be a terribly problematic redefinition. Here is their methodology table; I broke it down in this Google spreadsheet. If you look at the numbers of current STEM occupation holders, CtQ has basically doubled the size of the available pool, from around 7 million positions to close to 14 million. It should also be pointed out that it appears to me that their definition of STEM jobs in healthcare appears to encompass 85% of health occupation job holders.* Also, according to their own numbers (see above), the introduction of the healthcare field dramatically changes the ratio of STEM openings to STEM unemployed.

(Am I crazy, or is that a completely meaningless ratio? Am I wrong in thinking that, according to their ratio, an unemployed chemist is being measured against an job opening for cardiac surgery? It's also remarkable that they're associating job growth in some STEM fields (i.e. chemistry, or physics) with the completely ridonkulous increases in some health care fields that are going to be required to keep up with our aging population.)

I am sympathetic to people who are concerned about the quality of the American workforce and their level of STEM expertise. It seems self-evident to me that better STEM education is worthwhile. However, that doesn't justify questionable categorizing by Change the Equation, or the confusion that it will engender on the part of their audiences. While health care is important and contains some science and mathematics skills, I believe that it falls well outside the definition of "STEM."

*Look, you might need some math and some biology to be a licensed practical nurse (probably just solid arithmetic, really), but it doesn't make it a STEM job. 

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