What STEM Is--and Why We Care

What is STEM and why does it matter?

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There’s a simple answer, and a complicated one. Simple: It’s about jobs. Complicated: It’s a key to the U.S. economy, representing the growing disconnect between the skills that employers need in an increasingly technological world and the talent—or lack thereof—that the education system produces.

It’s also a terrible acronym that means science, technology, engineering, and math. But as with lots of famous acronyms—SALT, NASA—it’s become shorthand for an important issue and a burgeoning industry of companies, schools, community groups, and policymakers who are trying to solve the problem. The STEM challenge extends from toddlers (Sesame Street has a numbers-focused initiative) up through literal rocket scientists. It is as much about the decline of middle-class jobs (manufacturing is a high-tech industry) as it is about inventing the next iPad (we’re actually pretty good at that).

[Learn More About U.S. News STEM Solutions: A Leadership Summit]

STEM is a topic that U.S. News will be dissecting in great detail. The intersection of education and jobs in a changing marketplace is critical for both policymakers and consumers. We can help untangle the subject on both levels through news coverage, commentary, and data—like Jason Koebler’s story on high school science and technology competitions in this week’s issue. Last summer we began a STEM blog (usnews.com/stem) to corral the growing amount of news on the subject. There are thousands of STEM programs in the federal government, let alone state and local efforts—although the efforts are disorganized and not on a big enough scale. 

In the job market, consider that there are 2 million to 3 million unfilled positions because companies can’t find workers with basic technical skills. We’ll have about 10 million such openings before the end of the decade. Consider that a two-year degree in a STEM field is worth more than a four-year liberal arts diploma. So how do we get better information into the hands of our readers? Stitching together employer needs with education skills into a career pathway will be crucial.

But while jobs are the outcome, it all starts with education. Something has to change. The current system cannot produce the talent we need. How do we train better teachers and leverage their skills with technology? How do we keep girls from dropping out of higher math, and minorities from steering away from it in the first place? Our ranking of Best High Schools for Math and Science, launching in late May, is a powerful tool to address some of those questions. We’re also hosting the first national STEM convention in Dallas this June. We’re bringing together the best thinkers from business, education, and government to redefine, re-energize, and promote the issue. The theme is “STEM Means Jobs.”

Americans were shocked when the Russians put the Sputnik satellite into space in 1957 and grabbed a lead in global technology. We responded with a massive push to upgrade math and science education. The problem now is no less urgent. While our interest has diminished, the rest of the world’s has grown. Whether we can muster the same intensity to catch up will be one of the great questions of the next few years. I’d like to hear your thoughts on the STEM challenge. Drop me a note at editor@usnews.com.