Why STEM subjects don’t attract young students?

Governments around the world are advocating a slogan: “We need more young people to study STEM” (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). However, it seems the result of this call is not so satisfying. Young people today don’t have such a passion on studying science and technology, as the previous generations had during 1960s to 1980s after Sputnik. As far as I know, my peers are most likely to study law, literature, history and performing art etc. The most popular scientific course is computer science, whose popularity is still far from humanity, social science or art.

In the discussion of why young students today tend to keep STEM subjects at bay when choosing university courses, a common opinion is that studying STEM requests too much time, effort or even IQ; most of them don’t want to take so much time to study STEM, so they choose humanity or art, which are “easy”. To be honest, I can’t share this point of view. It is far from what I have experienced and thought. If we say STEM is too hard, why there were numerous youth going into the field of STEM and later became famous scientists and engineers in NASA, DAARPA, Rolls-Royce etc. ? Does it mean the IQ or brain of human has been degenerating in the past few decades? Of course not. People don’t study STEM only because they don’t have the motivation. Why don’t students have motivation? Because our society doesn’t like graduates from STEM enough, though we think they are important. And all the reasons lie here: a commercial world!

If we pay a little attention to the mainstream media, except Discovery Channel and National Geographic Society, we will easily find that the absolutely most of the stars or heroes in our world are 3 types: financiers, silicon valley genius and young entertainment stars. Every young student, like myself, wants to be a rich and successful person in the future. Those who want to do a job that attracts them purely for personal hobby despite of unsatisfying income are always minority; because finally we need to make a living. When the media boast how rich the 3 types of people I mentioned above, students will definitely want to study the knowledge relevant to these fields, such as art, finance & business, IT etc. It’s not our young people’s selfishness, but just the nature of human. And now the government encourages young students study STEM, because “science and technology is the future of the world”, “the nation which have most scientists is the most powerful one in the future”. Yes, we totally agree with it. But have you ever heard of a scientist as rich as Mark Zuckerberg or as famous as Justin Bieber? No – yes, we once had, he is Carl Sagan. But after him, we couldn’t find another one any more. Even Brian Cox has far less popularity than Mr. Sagan had 30 years ago. Most of scientists and engineers give young people this impression: they are nerd; they study a lot; if you get a theoretical physics phd, you can’t find a job; scientists who have worked for NASA for 30 years earn almost same as a graduate programmer in Facebook. After seeing this cruel fact, do you think young people would study STEM subjects? Why should we study the hardest subjects but earn far less than an entertainment teen star or a junior programmer? Although the government officials have called frequently that young people should study STEM, but sorry, we are not sage, and we are living in a practical world. Just like that saying: “Those who are claiming political correctness have never lived in Bronx.”

Some people, especially those economists, have their own theory to explain the cruel fact I mentioned above. It’s called “supply-demand balance”. This summary can be summarized like this in short: because there are more people liking film stars and more users talking on Facebook, so people working in these industries SHOULD earn a lot; but there are few people using NASA’s product and there are too rare people studying theory of wormhole, so scientists’ income is REASONABLY low. I’m totally supporting this theory in a totally commercial society. But here comes next problem: can everything be commercialized? Can everything evaluated by its business value? Should our society thoroughly obey natural economic rules? If we totally obey the natural rule in a dynamic system, we will see water flowing down instead of soaring up. If the society wants to go forward, there must be government pushing it. A free commercialized society leads to short-sighted atmosphere. Because of commercial profit, there won’t be a company willing to invest 10 billion dollars and 10 years to build a space probe flying to Jupiter. Same principle for the income of scientists and engineers. By obeying the rule of commercial society, we will see the income of financiers, IT genius and stars going increasingly higher, and then more and more people flooding into university degrees such as business, it, music and other performing arts, no matter how government claim the importance of STEM subjects. When everything is commercialized, the value of STEM is underestimated. I do think people like Mr. Zuckerberg is improving our communication, but compared with scientists, maybe their contribution difference is really amazing. Because providing service online is a virtual stuff, but our society is improved by producing new theory and sensible material.

The best way to improve the popularity of STEM education is not a political slogan. The first task for government and media is to improve the treat for STEM talents with laws and policies and improve the fame and reputation of them. We can’t expect young people are sage, who only contribute to society but care nothing about self-interest.

17 Jun 2017


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