STEM Beats - December 2016

High School STEM Literacy: Necessary, Yet Insufficient

December 19, 2016

This past election season invoked talk of putting people back to work—particularly in the manufacturing sector.  To help frame the scope of the problem, a study from the Brookings Institute claims that factories eliminated 6.7 million people’s positions with some industries completely dying out from 1980 to 2014. At first glance, that looks bad for manufacturing. However, this same study found that American factories made twice as much in that same 30-year period with production today at an all-time high. So, if production is up but employment is down, where is the disparity?

“The popular notion is that the jobs were shipped to low-wage countries like Mexico or China. The reality is that in recent years, 88 percent of job loss in manufacturing is due to gains in productivity, such as increased use of robots,” asserts Dr. Anthony Carnevale in an op-ed for the Hechinger Report. The data Carnevale cites has serious educational implications; workers with a high school diploma or less took the brunt of the productivity-based employment losses.

That popular notion used to be closer to the truth. According to The Boston Consulting Group (BCG), historically manufacturing competitiveness relied heavily on low-cost labor sources. This gave the advantage to low-wage countries. However, new BCG studies of the last ten years in manufacturing report that many countries, including the U.S., offset higher wage costs with increases in productivity. And countries that did not focus on production lost some ground—shifting the manufacturing advantage in favor of these high output economies. This shift implicates a growing trend in manufacturing robots since technological advances in automation allow today’s factories to do much more with much less.

“Robots can complete many manufacturing tasks more efficiently, effectively, and consistently than human workers, leading to higher output with the same number of workers, better quality, and less waste,” states the report from BCG.

As the use of manufacturing robots becomes more commonplace, the types of manufacturing jobs available to employees will require more skill. The National Association of Manufacturers forecasts an additional 3 ½ million manufacturing jobs over the next 10 years. But 2 million of those positions will go unfilled unless we produce a workforce with the post-secondary skills needed.

The trends in manufacturing employment highlight the nationwide employment issues for those with just a high school diploma or less. Economically, the environment has changed for low-skill jobs and won’t likely change back—positioning post-secondary as more of a requirement and less of an option for anyone seeking to make a living wage. To those rallying for stronger K-12 education, and for STEM particularly, there is no better time than the present if they want to change this future!

Tags: jobs & workforce

New data: Computer science for fun and profit

December 8, 2016

As we observe Computer Science Education Week, it’s worth celebrating some of the important ways in which computer science can enrich people’s lives. At Change the Equation, we often point to high salaries and low unemployment. Important as those advantages are, we should not forget another: computer science work is fun and satisfying.

Most of the fortunate few youngsters who take computer science in high school like it a lot. Eagle-eyed researchers at uncovered some striking data buried in a recent CTEq/Amgen Foundation study on student attitudes towards computer science in high school:

Computer science and engineering rank right up there with the arts. It’s a shame that half of the nation’s high schoolers attend schools that don’t even offer computer science classes.

Computer science can be as gratifying on the job as it is in the classroom. When we reviewed international workforce and skill data, we found a compelling pattern: 

Rewards of complex computer skills

Why do people who use complex computers on the job find their work more satisfying? The data don't answer that question, but the answer may lie in the high demand for computer science skills. In the lean years that followed the great recession, newspapers were full of stories about recent college graduates working as baristas. They were dreadfully under-employed. 

A closer look at economic data revealed that those with bachelor's degrees in computer science were less likely than most of their peers to do jobs that didn't require high skills:

Recent computing grade weathered the recession

If your job doesn't make use of your skills, you probably won't be very satisfied. Computer science skills are in high demand.

Of course, high salaries also contribute to satisfaction, so we'd be remiss if we didn't end with this reminder:

CS is a gateway to a prosperous future:

No one said earning money can't be fun.

Tags: computer science

PISA Shows Some Strides in Equity

December 6, 2016

The 2015 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) results don’t likely include much you haven’t heard before regarding U.S. students. We are falling behind many developed nations in math—23 points lower than the average of all the nations—and just staying afloat with average scores in science and reading.

In contrast, we rank amongst the biggest spenders on education. So, many nations outsmarting us are doing so while spending less. The state of Massachusetts rises above the fray, however, performing very highly in science (only Singapore outperformed the Bay state), highly in reading, and slightly above average in math. Though relevant, our PISA scorecard is not particularly compelling. The most intriguing thing to come out of the 2015 results is our improvement in socio-economic equity--the largest improvement among all of the countries participating in PISA both in 2006 and 2015. Some have criticized PISA in previous years for failing to take into account the large number of students living in poverty in the U.S. and their consistent low performance on standardized testing. But this year's results tell a different story. 

"In 2006, socioeconomic status had explained 17 percent of the variance in Americans’ science scores; in 2015, it explained only 11 percent, which is slightly better than average for the developed world," states the New York Times.

Further PISA analysis shows an increase in performance by our most disadvantaged students. In fact, the 2015 PISA identifies 32 percent of U.S. students as resilient--students that perform among the top quarter of performers in all of the participating countries despite their disadvantaged socio-economic status. This is up 12 percentage points from 2006. At the same time, the data suggests stagnant performance for our most advantaged kids with the boost from the disadvantaged students not significant enough of a bump to raise the overall scores. Parents and educators quick to dismiss PISA results because their individual high-performing students aren't reflected in this data should reconsider. If nothing else is clear, we still have a national problem that will take a unified national effort of educators, parents, advocates, students, and employers targeting student performance at every level.

Photo courtesy of the PISA 2015 Report.

Tags: math, science, education

And the Winner Is...Tennessine

December 1, 2016

November 28th marked a historical occasion for four new elements of the periodic table. After five months of waiting, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) revealed the approved names of its newest chemical family members. Say hello to nihonium (Nh), moscovium (Mc), tennessine (Ts), and oganesson (Og). The addition of these four brings the grand total of periodic table elements up to 118! IUPAC first announced the discovery of these elements in December 2015 and their naming wraps up a nearly year-long process for their inclusion.

It is tradition for the element discoverers to propose the possible names. This year’s names mostly honored places pivotal in the discovery of the newest and heaviest metals. Nihonium, discovered at the RIKEN Nishina Center for Accelerator-Based Science in Japan, comes from one of the Japanese words for “Japan”: Nihon. According to the Japanese Times, Nihonium’s naming was even more historical signifying the first time scientists from any Asian country have named an element. Similarly, scientists proposed tennessine for Tennessee and moscovium for Moscow. That leaves just oganesson, named for Russian scientist Yuri Oganessian—making Oganessian the second living scientist with an element named after him.

“The names of the new elements reflect the realities of our present time” said IUPAC President Professor Natalia Tarasova in the announcement, “universality of science, honoring places from three continents, where the elements have been discovered—Japan, Russia, the United States—and the pivotal role of human capital in the development of science, honoring an outstanding scientist—Professor Yuri Oganessian”.

Remember Tom Lehrer's famous homage to the periodic table in 1959? There were only 102 elements then. Enjoy it now, again or for the first time, in celebration of the discoveries from then to now.


Photo courtesy of the website.