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Americans See Range of Problems Plaguing STEM Education

Women in STEM careers are more likely than men to say that they've faced gender discrimination at work, particularly if they hold an advanced degree, work in a computer job or work in in an environment with more men. Men and women in STEM fields also disagree somewhat on how likely hard work and assertiveness are to advance their career goals.

These findings come from a new report from Pew Research examining attitudes about STEM careers and education generally and gender and racial equity in STEM careers more specifically.

Most Americans think K-12 STEM education in the United States is mediocre at best, with 43 percent of survey respondents calling it average and another 30 percent saying it is below average. Only 25 percent told Pew researchers that K-12 American STEM education is above average. Undergraduate STEM education fared slightly better, with 35 percent calling it above average and only 17 percent calling it below average. Graduate education did even better, with 38 percent of respondents calling it above average.

Americans also see a range of problems plaguing STEM education, with eight separate issues, ranging from uninvolved parents and disinterested students to outdated curriculum materials and an outsized focus on state standards, cited as problems by 48 percent of respondents or more.

Survey respondents were more likely, at a 28 percent clip, to say that STEM subjects should receive greater emphasis in school than any other subject, with English/writing/reading coming in second at 19 percent.

Though 57 percent of respondents told researchers one of the problems with STEM education in the U.S. is a lack of student interest in learning, most of them — a solid 75 percent — said that they enjoyed science classes when they were K-12 students and 58 percent said they liked math classes. Altogether, nearly half, 46 percent, said they liked both science and math classes.

Men were more likely than women to say they liked both, at 54 percent and 39 percent, respectively.

Among STEM workers, unsurprisingly, the numbers were higher, with 66 percent of respondents saying they liked both science and math classes as K-12 students.

Women in STEM fields were more likely than other women to say that they had experienced discrimination in the workforce, at rates of 50 percent and 4 percent, respectively. "But in other respects, the challenges women in STEM face in the workplace echo those of all working women," according to the report. "Women in STEM and non-STEM jobs are equally likely to say they have experienced sexual harassment at work, and both groups of women are less inclined than men to think that women are 'usually treated fairly' when it comes to promotions where they work."

Representation of women varies widely across STEM fields, according to the report, with women making up 75 percent of the workforce in Health-related jobs at the high end, and just 14 percent in engineering jobs at the other end.

In computer occupations, the collection of STEM jobs that have seen the most growth recently, the share of jobs taken up by women has actually declined from 32 percent in 1990 to just 25 percent today.

Black and Hispanic Americans are also underrepresented in STEM fields, making up 11percent and 16 percent of the workforce, respectively, but representing merely 9 percent and 7 percent  of all STEM workers. As with women, representation for black and Hispanic workers varies widely across career clusters and specific jobs, with black and Hispanic workers accounting for 37 percent of licensed practical and licensed vocational nurses, but only 5 percent of optometrists, veterinarians and chiropractors.

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About the Author

Joshua Bolkan is contributing editor for Campus Technology, THE Journal and STEAM Universe. He can be reached at [email protected].

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