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. 


  1. (Js + Jh)/(Us + Uh) > Js/Us iff (Jh/Uh) > (Js/Us)

    I guess that's how you Change the Equation.

  2. My spouse and I were on the job market at the same time. They are a nurse, I'm a hard science PhD. They get, on average, 2-3 recruiters calling them a week offering signing bonuses in the tens of thousands of dollars. I filled out, on average 4-5 applications a day for 10 months and felt lucky to get a rejection in a timely manner. I have a job, now, but it certainly wasn't quick or easy to get it.

    To make things worse, an RN is a 2-year degree at a community college here (yes, I know the RN is the license and the degree is actually an ASN). It takes considerably more time and money to get a PhD...just to be unemployed.

    There's a HUGE difference in the fields. My spouse is an awesome nurse but just doesn't face the same employment, or unemployment, reality that I am.

    1. Nursing HAS to be the highest ROI, even higher than petroleum engineering.

      That's why CtQ's conflation of the two is just stonkeringly stupid.

    2. "the two" = "health care and traditional STEM"

  3. I while back I was speaking to a neighbor about drug companies laying off a lot of researchers. She replied "Well, can't those researchers just go and work as pharmacists?" I had to carefully explain to her that pharmacists are licensed health care professionals, and that you have to go to pharmacy school for 4-5 years, and pass a licensing exam. It's not just something you decide to drop into. She was sympathetic, but clueless.

    I'm sure there are thousands of people like her out there.

  4. I think from a K12 standpoint, healthcare is basically a STEM career. A lot of these groups are trying to address the fact that only 44% of 12th graders are proficient in math.
    (I'm using Change the equations numbers here:

    It's not so much about the career these kids will have when they get there, but making sure they have the foundation to make the choice. You have to be proficient in math to work as a linesman, or a nurse, or earn a (STEM) PhD, so having students fail to achieve that makes it very hard for them to get access to good opportunities. My impression from all this talk about STEM jobs is that is isn't always people who literally perform STEM on a regular basis, but those who have some STEM-y prereq to their career.

    Do you suggest we just get honest and say we have a health care career problem and send students into those training paths? Because Anon 12:52 is so right- a LOT of 2 yr degrees provide a lot more career flexibility compared to the hyper-specialization of a PhD.

    1. I'm all in favor of better STEM education in K-12; it's just that this is a bad justification. So first of all, I reject STEM as a grouping, especially undergraduate and beyond. I just feel like this (CtQ) conflates things that are way too different.

      If you're saying things like "The contrast between STEM occupations and other major occupational areas is particularly striking." and then chucking healthcare into that mix, it makes your numbers all screwy. It should be "The contrast between healthcare occupations and other MOAs is particularly striking" -- because it IS! We're getting older, and there are a lot of old people who are going to need their blood pressure checked (steM) and the TV changed to Jeopardy (sTem (?) -- mostly kidding).