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Elizabeth Marincola

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STEM Degrees Provide Value Even in Non-STEM Careers

Posted: 07/22/11 07:37 PM ET

Why are so many young people intimidated by science? We may be happily past the negative rap of the "geek factor," thanks to famously successful role models in Steve Jobs, Sally Ride, Bill Gates, Sergey Brin, and others. But science can invoke the natural tendency, especially of young people, to fear failure, because learning science can require discipline and sometimes tedium, especially at the beginning - an understanding of basic matter and energy, or cell biology, can be a necessary prerequisite to get to the good, creative stuff.

Now students have an additional incentive to consider overcoming their hesitation to study science. A recent study of the U.S. Department of Commerce Economics and Statistics Administration (ESA), STEM: Good Jobs Now and for the Future, reports that those who pursue a science career both enjoy lower rates of joblessness and earn 26 percent more than their non-STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) counterparts. The study projects that this will continue to hold true into the future. Moreover, those who have degrees in a STEM area and work in a non-STEM profession also have higher earnings on average.

This is affirming but not surprising. Society for Science & the Public (SSP) is dedicated to the advancement of our nation's young scientists, as well as to encouraging all students and citizens to explore the world through a scientific lens.

Alumni of SSP's science competitions include seven Nobel Laureates, but they also include successful artists, musicians, filmmakers, judges, and business and social entrepreneurs. SSP alumni exemplify how the pursuit of independent scientific research in middle school and high school can reap many benefits, such as building discipline, increasing confidence, improving communication, and developing analytical skills. These are all qualities that support career success in any sector.

An alumnus of the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), Daniel Trueman, co-founded the Princeton Laptop Orchestra. He says, "It might seem strange that I ended up as a composer and musician having focused on doing so much scientific stuff earlier, but I actually find it to be really quite relevant. All the work I did in science actually very much informs the work I do now in really positive ways."

Rajiv Vinnakota was a Finalist of the ISEF in 1989 and is cofounder of the SEED Foundation , which provides educational opportunities to urban communities. He says that, "scientific research taught me so much about the importance of persistence, diligence, and attention to detail. I apply my background as a scientist to my work today as an education reformer."

Perhaps SSP's most famous artistic alumna, Academy-Award-winning actress Natalie Portman, who was already an accomplished actress when she was named a Semifinalist in the Intel Science Talent Search, said it best: "I'm going to college. I don't care if it ruins my career. I'd rather be smart than a movie star." She earned a degree in psychology from Harvard.

Especially in today's economic environment, parents and students alike are understandably concerned about the career prospects of new graduates. An education in science in itself opens an exciting profoundly important door to the world around us. Also critical, it offers the best possible prospect for a stable and fulfilling career within or beyond the sciences.

The full report of the Department of Commerce is available here.