Perceptions are important: Article in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel disses bachelors’ degrees in STEM, a mom complains about STEM education at the high school and college levels, and Governor Scott checks in

Those of us who are educators at the university level in the physical sciences and engineering really have to pay attention to what people outside of our ivory towers think.

Some examples:

First, an article in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel by that paper’s education reporter, Scott Travis.  Travis authored an article titled, “Which degrees lead to most jobs in Florida?  Health and education lead, math and science lag.”  Here’s how it begins:

If you want a job in Florida, you may want to be a science teacher rather than a scientist, a nurse rather than a nuclear engineer.

A state report of how state university graduates fared in the job market shows that those in the medical and educational fields most easily find employment. On the opposite end were bachelor’s degrees in ocean engineering, chemical sciences and physics, according to the Florida Education Training and Placement Program.

The data, derived from linking school records to employment records, does not say how many graduates went out of state for jobs or graduate schools. The report is based on 2009 data, the most recent available.

Yup, physics is apparently a problem (and yes, I am obligated to include the standard salary-offers-for-new-bachelor’s-degree-grads plot below).

Of course, Travis’ article has a point – that relatively few bachelor’s degree grads in physics go right into jobs with Florida.  Many of our graduates go on to graduate school, mostly in physics but often in other fields like finance, engineering and even medicine and law.  In reviewing the records of our FSU bachelor’s degree grads in physics over the last five years, we found that significantly more than half are now going on to graduate programs. 

But as the above data show, physics bachelor’s degree grads do fine in the job market.  The fields in which FSU’s recent bachelor’s degree grads found jobs included IT and financial services, but not necessarily in Florida. 

It’s not always those from outside academia who say inexplicable things.  Consider this jaw-droppping quote from Travis’ article:

“A math person won’t be hired. He’s not considered to have the skills necessary,” said Arlen Chase, who chairs UCF’s anthropology department. “The first step to go into the professional world is you have to get an advanced degree. It’s not a question of jobs. It’s a question of education.”

Obviously, having an anthropology professor comment on the career prospects for mathematics graduates is a bit, uh, questionable (see above chart).  Professor Chase simply doesn’t know what he’s talking about.  And he’s not thoughtful enough to know that. 

For more ammunition on this point, see NPR’s recent story on the hunt for strong math students.

Then for sheer frustration, check out this letter to the editor on TCPalm.com:

I read with great interest the letter about kids taking the “easy way out” and not following technical tracks in college. The writer needs to backtrack to high school.

My children were not even offered physics in high school. Now they both attend a well-known and highly regarded Florida college, enrolled in engineering programs. They are faced with burnt-out professors and non-English-speaking teaching assistants. Many students have to pay for tutoring sessions on top of their tuition.

We have an education system in Florida that is in danger of failing many potential “technical students” and future workers. The strength and quality of basic education is the future of our country.

Government mandates seem to be hurting, not helping, the system. Parents, students, and educators need to take back the system and demand the best education the world has to offer.

But maybe, just maybe, there is a little momentum in the right direction.  This from Governor Scott’s op-ed, here published in the Fort Myers News-Press:

Part of making sure Florida has the best educated workforce is improving education in the STEM areas of science, technology, engineering and math.

Through 2018, Florida will need 120,000 new workers in STEM fields. In spite of this need, fewer than 20 percent of the State University System’s graduates are expected to obtain a STEM degree.

For students to be successful in these subjects, we must help them gain the essential building blocks of knowledge and understanding in our elementary, middle and high schools.

What’s most important here is the acknowledgement that a successful effort to improve STEM education in Florida must be vertical – involving all levels of education, not just the colleges and universities.

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2 Responses to Perceptions are important: Article in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel disses bachelors’ degrees in STEM, a mom complains about STEM education at the high school and college levels, and Governor Scott checks in

  1. Pingback: Perceptions are important: Article in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel … | My Blog

  2. Doc Carr says:

    Paul, you have many blogable topics in this one article!

    1) You might not be attuned to the existence of press-release journalism. That Sun-Sentinel article appears to have come from an ed department report publicized by a press release and then fleshed out with local examples. That would be why the reporter did not think to ask whether that impressive longitudinal Florida data base can say which out-of-state schools got the most jobs in Florida. You see, it could be that the best way to get a tech job in the state of Florida is to be from the northeast, but those data won’t tell you that. Your APS data don’t say anything at all about where those physics jobs were or what HS they came from.

    2) Those concerned about investing in education in Florida do not see any value in someone taking their physics degree to another state and earning a good living there. The discussion you highlighted has a very parochial viewpoint fed by a concern for short-term job growth. A rapid return on investment.

    3) The point about math is valid, and backed by your own comments about physics. Many of the better jobs require more than a BS degree. Look again at math. Fully 1/4 of the jobs for a math BS pay less than about $37,000. Ask a student what they think a STEM job will pay and they say 60 to 70 thousand, not HS teacher pay.

    4) Something I noticed in that article was the bias toward 4-year degrees in the health care field. You really should visit the new TCC “allied health” teaching facility to see what a 2-year program looks like. The radiology department can be used as a backup to TMH in an emergency! Now it is true that we will probably start offering a BSN degree, as FSU shifts its emphasis toward the doctorate in nursing, but you don’t need to go to UCF to be a fully licensed radiologist. You need a BS and MS degree to teach radiology.

    5) Don’t be too quick to dismiss that letter about burnt-out professors and foreign TAs. Sure, it is probably UF, but how many freshman calculus, chemistry, or engineering classes have you visited at FSU? And be sure to keep in mind that the typical student doesn’t know if the prof teaching the class is someone like you or a non-tenured instructor with a teaching load many times heavier than even I have.

    6) I agree 100% with your closing remark that the solution requires a long-term effort that starts well below where we are working.

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