Though President Barack Obama's State of the Union Address stressed the need for a competitive workforce, especially in more technical fields such as energy, young Americans see massive barriers to entering such professions, according to survey results released Wednesday.
Sixty percent of respondents ages 16 to 25 to the Lemelson-MIT Invention Index, which seeks to gauge innovation aptitude among young adults, named at least one factor that prevented them from pursuing further education or work in science, technology, engineering and math fields (known as STEM). Thirty-four percent said they "don't know much about these fields," while a third said "these fields are too challenging." Twenty-eight percent said they weren't "well-prepared in school to seek out a career or further ... [their] education in these fields."
Meanwhile, 47 percent of respondents noted that a lack of innovation "would hurt the U.S. economy" and 80 percent said they'd be interested in courses that would help them "become more inventive and creative." While 26 percent noted they're motivated to choose careers for stability, 22 percent said they would be inspired by jobs that would give them a chance "to change the world."
"It's reassuring: youth are invested in helping others. They want to be altruistic. It gives us cause to be optimistic," said Joshua Schuler, executive director of the Lemelson-MIT Program, a Massachusetts Institution of Technology-based group that administered the survey for the 16th year. "At the same time, we found there's a real lack of knowledge in STEM education and the things that motivate young people to go into."
The survey, conducted under contract by Kelton Research, asked multiple-choice questions via the Internet of 1,000 people ages 16 to 25, selected to be nationally representative, with a 95 percent confidence level.
The results are especially important as professors and policymakers bemoan the relatively small ranks of American science majors and entrants into STEM jobs. As the New York Times noted, "the president and industry groups have called on colleges to graduate 10,000 more engineers a year and 100,000 new teachers with majors in STEM." Fewer than half of students with plans to major in STEM wind up dropping that focus before graduation.
"There's an opportunity here," Schuler said. "While over 60 percent said there are hurdles to pursue a barrier in stem education, they saw that the fields of healthcare and education are in need of a solution. The young people want to do these things, they want to learn to be more inventive. In large part, it's policy folks and adults playing catch-up."
Last week, the President's Council on Jobs and Competitiveness advocated a focus on STEM fields in schools. The paper stressed the need to "start by transforming our education system from preschool through K-12." The last round of the Education Department's Race to the Top competition, in which states competed for education-reform cash, had a STEM education component.
Still, a Government Accountability Office report last week said federal programs to promote STEM education have significant overlap, though they might "not necessarily be ... duplicative." The GAO study found it difficult to assess individual programs and "the overall STEM education effort."
The GAO report is already being used as partisan ammunition by Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), chairman of the Education and the Workforce Committee, who commissioned the report. "Taxpayers have seen little evidence that these programs are actually working," Kline said in a statement. “Investing in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics is a worthwhile endeavor -- but pumping billions of dollars into programs that may be duplicative or unproductive is just plain foolish."