“The future of the economy is in STEM,” stated James Brown, executive director of the STEM Education Coalition. “That’s where the jobs of tomorrow will be.”
At Wells + Associates, we agree. With numerous Professional Engineers and technical staff in our company’s ranks, we appreciate the need for STEM expertise. We feel that the work we do encompasses the true influence of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math in our society, coupled with what we might call the “social science” of Transportation Planning and Engineering and the “behavioral science” of Transportation Demand Management.
There are varying definitions of STEM. The STEM Education Coalition states that “STEM workers use their knowledge of science, technology, engineering, or math to try to understand how the world works and to solve problems.” That works for us, since our mission is to Meet the Needs of a Mobile Society.
While there seem to be regular reports of a lack of STEM-educated graduates entering the workforce, the truth is a bit more complicated, with some sectors and regions enjoying a steady supply of STEM graduates, and others a lack of graduates. As Yi Xue and Richard C. Larson of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology put it in their report, “STEM crisis or STEM surplus? Yes and yes,” “As our society relies further on technology for economic development and prosperity, the vitality of the STEM workforce will continue to be a cause for concern.”
Promoting STEM in High Schools
For a number of years, our executive vice president Melissa Hish and senior associate Brian Horan, P.E., have presented on STEM educational and career opportunities to students at Paul VI High School in Fairfax, Virginia. Through the presentation, the students are introduced to a wide range of engineering disciplines, including materials science, construction, environmental, structural, and transportation. Brian and Melissa discuss various career opportunities with a degree in transportation engineering, including operations, land development, transportation planning, and management.
What has been especially pleasing is introducing students to engineering and planning scenarios to which they can directly relate. Since the Catholic Diocese of Arlington announced in 2015 that it will be moving the high school westward from its current Fairfax location to Loudoun County by 2020, our engineers have led the high schoolers through a range of hypothetical options and challenges they would face if they were managing the transportation planning and engineering aspects of their high school’s move. In other words, the students are introduced to the same issues that our institutional clients face.
During the session, the students are guided through a personalized case study involving land use, zoning, trip generation, traffic forecasting, and traffic simulations. Our hope is that if the students can “see themselves” in this case study, then they also can envision a STEM career for themselves, too. We are pleased that Paul VI keeps inviting us back.
Outside the classroom, the Catholic Diocese of Arlington engaged W+A to prepare a traffic impact study for the relocation of its PVI campus to its new home in Loudoun County. We are also currently engaged in the preliminary planning stages for the redevelopment of the existing PVI Fairfax campus.
Promoting STEM at the University Level
At the university level, a 2014 National Academy of Sciences paper stated that while the percentage of women aspiring to STEM education programs has risen from 38% in 1971 to 52% in 2012, most of that increase is channeled toward social and biological science programs. What’s more, women are “distinct minorities in engineering (21%) and in math and computer science (25%).” In addition to citing these statistics about students who aspire to study STEM, the report states that “the completion rates for students who aspire to a STEM degree continue to be lower than those for students in many other fields, which has led to questions about the quality of the educational experiences for STEM students.”
Former W+A associate Amelia Martin, EIT, reflected on these issues in a recent interview on STEM education with Meritalk: “While it is amazing to have women in positions of leadership in university programs, it’s also important that young women have mentors. Role models are important to inspire us, but mentors get down in the weeds with us and show us it’s OK to make mistakes while we learn and grow.”
As noted in the article, CDW-G, a technology solutions provider, recently surveyed 300 college women and recent graduates to better understand the female experience in STEM university programs. Aside from finding that greater encouragement from teachers is essential for fostering more female interest in STEM fields, the survey participants suggested that universities focus more on connecting students with influential females in STEM and creating internship opportunities for women.
As Amelia stated to Meritalk, “Getting more women into STEM is important. Female mentors are a good start, but I believe other integrated approaches must be part of the solution to get male and female STEM minds working together.”