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Is it a myth that "Americans are too lazy to pursue STEM careers"?

  1. Aug 20, 2014 #1
    At the university I went to, the STEM departments are filled to the brim every year. In fact the Computer Science department gets so many applicants that it lets in only 3-4% every quarter. And then you have business/political talking heads saying that Americans are too lazy to pursue careers in Computer Science, that we need to expand the number of H1B Visas in response to this crisis of a shortage of STEM workers. Something seems off.
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 20, 2014 #2
    Its only a myth if somebody is saying it. I don't deny someone is... but where have you heard it? I never have.

    Rather, I hear that Americans want more money for the same jobs. I hear that directly from Americans complaining about how much they make (even though they are among the highest paid people in the world, and indeed in the history of humanity).

    edit - In my estimation, most americans dont want to study STEM subjects and pursue STEM careers because they are too boring and not fulfilling. Most people dont like math and science. They like technology and when they claim to like science technology is what they really like. Maybe this is a bit of being lazy, because science and math are hard, confusing and take a lot of work. I don't blame anybody for not wanting to do it. I studied it and continue to study it because I like it. But I think there are plenty that do like it, do study it and desperately want a career or job in it. They just need to be competitive with their wage expectations if they expect somebody to pay them for it, because people all over the world can be and are just as smart.
    Last edited: Aug 20, 2014
  4. Aug 21, 2014 #3
    I have three children. Two are in high school. I have seen their homework and their classrooms. The problem with STEM studies is that schools aren't even trying to teach enough so that a motivated child can experiment or build something.

    There are many social reasons why STEM is not more popular than it is.

    First, we don't treat the students who are interested in such fields well. There are few places for kids to discover this sort of thing on their own. When was the last time you saw a neighborhood where some kid would tinker with a car or fix a bicycle, put up a ham radio antenna, experiment with chemistry, photography, or even travel on their own. The nannies of the world have put their foot down, fearing risks to the kids.

    When I was young I remember checking out books from the library on how to make your own fireworks from the kid's section of the library. (!) You could also find children's books on how a car worked, where your electricity came from, or chemical experiments you could do in your kitchen, how an airplane flies, and so on. Just try to find such books in a library now. If you're lucky, you might find something on the Internet, but even if you do, finding parts and nearby mentors to help you is difficult.

    We don't even teach rudimentary programming skills in schools any more. Apparently even writing software for fun is rapidly becoming a subversive activity.

    Second, we treat the teachers like dirt, as administrators, students, and as parents. And then we sit around wondering why it is so hard to find a competent teacher. I'd settle for competent. Good teachers are so rare, that if a child ever has the opportunity to meet such a person in 12 years of school, it is notable.

    Third, kids are steeped in this idiotic mythology of "leadership." It isn't that leadership is bad, but you have to understand the world around you, first. But somehow everyone glosses over or utterly skips that step. That's how we get flaming, sociopathic ignoramuses who preen and posture well enough to make a good first impression --and they then promptly discover that they have no useful ideas of how they were supposed to reach the goals that they promised. And nobody sees fit to call them on this. They should be allowed to have these failures come back to haunt them, but they don't. The blame then rolls downhill while they waltz to another place where they perpetrate the same stupidity all over again.

    Fourth, despite all this, the leadership nitwits realize that there aren't enough real STEM graduates to get things done. Why? Well, with all that condescending behavior they've learned as "leaders" they've poisoned the well from which they came --but there is no use trying to explain that to them. So instead, they bring in graduates from overseas. Sooner or later, that flow will stop and these "leaders" will have to come back to reality.

    At some level, kids are intuitively aware of all this. A few realize that there is a good future for STEM graduates. Some realize that trades such as plumbing, electrical work, mechanics, machinists, welders, steelworkers, and the like are in very high demand. They bypass formal schooling all together in favor of apprenticeships.

    So the lack of STEM graduates from colleges starts at an early age. We have washed out any enthusiasm that a child might have for these fields in favor of "safe" stuff.

    The wonder of it all is that after all that poor environment, we still get people coming to colleges with an interest in physics, chemistry, engineering, mathematics, or computers. They may not know much, but they at least managed to maintain an interest through school.
    Last edited: Aug 21, 2014
  5. Aug 21, 2014 #4


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    Is this actually the case in US schools nowadays? I live in the province of Ontario in Canada, and at least from what I hear computer programming (not just use, but programming) is part of the basic curriculum of most public schools, and I suspect the situation is the same in the other provinces as well (the other Canadians on PF can weigh in on this).

    I wonder if this is a cultural trend within the US that is suspicious of authority, and teachers are seen as part of that authority.

    On a separate note, we often decry how schools in the US teach STEM subjects poorly. I'll flip this around -- are there subjects that US schools (from K-12) do a particularly good job of teaching?
  6. Aug 21, 2014 #5


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    But are some of these leaders STEM graduates themselves? In another thread I think you said you've met incompetent engineers from MIT.
  7. Aug 21, 2014 #6
    I graduated from the Washington DC public school system in 1981. Even the best schools in DC were barely rated average in the country at the time. I had to study a lot on my own to get a decent education. I was hoping my kids wouldn't have to do the same.

    So where are things working well?

    The music programs in our schools is very good. The sports programs are good. Foreign languages are okay, though they'd be better if they had other offerings.

    English language and literature are okay, but needs improvement.

    Math and science are poor.

    And by the way, I'm not talking about some mediocre public school system. I'm talking about a well funded, reasonably well regarded school system in Maryland that gets good ratings from various independent groups.

    I had hoped that my children wouldn't have to do what I did: my school math and science was so poor that I would study trigonometry on my own so that I could figure out how to build active filters for audio and impedance matching networks for my ham radio projects. I also spent loads of time studying semiconductor physics and relativity. And then I was disgusted when AP physics tests barely had no questions about that, and very few questions about electromagnetic subjects.

    It remains to be seen whether the schools teach enough that my children will be able to figure out any of this. I have doubts. At least I had the benefit of my outside interests to motivate me. Today's kids are isolated from everything so much that the Internet actually looks like one of the few venues that they can excel in.
  8. Aug 21, 2014 #7
    Most people who posture as leaders do NOT come from technical backgrounds.

    And in fairness, I had an extraordinary boss who had a meager technical background, but was fantastic leader.

    However, many of these people walk around with a defective notion that a competent manager can manage anything. So, to use a coaching analogy, can a Hockey coach do well for a gymnastics team? No? Then why do these idiots think they know something that we don't?
  9. Aug 21, 2014 #8


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    Personally, I don't consider sports programs to be a specific educational subject that is of much use outside of the school setting (unless you are so gifted an athlete that you can compete at the professional sport level or the Olympic level). It's interesting to hear that the music program in your schools are really good, since I've heard news reports that music programs across the US are facing cuts due to budgetary issues.

    It may well be the case that for students in the US to receive a good education in math and science they may need to attend private schools or special "charter schools" (btw, charter schools don't exist in Canada).

    On another note, I'm skeptical that kids these levels are really that isolated from everything, nor that the Internet is the only thing they can excel in, which is really more about using gadgets. As you said, if rudimentary programming isn't offered, just how truly technically proficient are the kids you talk about? It's always easy to wax nostalgic about how things "used to be" and somehow kids these are "doomed to failure", since it seems parents have been making these assertions for ages.
  10. Aug 21, 2014 #9
    I think schools of education are a problem in USA, teachers studying teaching rather than specific academic subjects. I think this can lead to screening out people that could actually be effective teachers.

    For example, I’ve got a physics PhD and have been a professional software developer for years, including a couple of jobs writing code for biomedical research and analyzing the data. I’m fairly confident I have subject matter knowledge sufficient to teach any of these at the high school level: physics, math, chemistry, programming and maybe biology. However, I believe (I’ll admit I’ve never looked into getting this kind of job, so I could easily be wrong) somebody like me wouldn’t even be considered for a high school teaching job. One reason is that I have no interest in getting teaching certifications.

    To me the main drawback of the job itself would be the working environment, I have no interest in dealing with unruly students (some would be ok, but there were quite a lot of these where I went to school) and my impression is public schools have a lot of politics/bureaucracy and that doesn’t interest me at all.

    My experience as a student is that I didn’t take any physics, chemistry or calculus in high school and I’m very happy I didn’t. The people I know from my high school that did, had a much harder time in the university versions of these subjects than I did. Obviously I didn’t take the courses myself so I can’t really judge the content and this is second hand, but talking to my high school friends it seems like they spent a lot of time unlearning things that were taught in high school.
  11. Aug 21, 2014 #10


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    Well during the Cold War wasn't the government pouring money into STEM education, hence many good scientists and engineers from that era in America, but now that existential threat doesn't exist so it's not funded.
  12. Aug 21, 2014 #11
    Actually I have a rather different take - american society placed the dollar on the pedestal and challenges every child to make money - if you are bright, focus on a career that is "where the money is", engineering it too hard and you don't make as much money, teaching - same thing, it is harder then you realize and you really do not make any money. Unless you personally have the drive or personal guidance to become interested and pursue these fields - this is little in society encouraging you. Then if you do not have role models in your life showing how to accomplish your goals ( even if it is making money) - then you pick the ones you see in the media setting unrealistic expectations - etc.
    The school system does have a very real problem at the post-secondary ( HS) level with good educators for these more challenging subjects. To be an effective HS educator in math for example- you really do need ~ 2 years of challenging college level math - as well as education in educational technique. If you can do that level of math you are not going into education ( as a generalization of course)
    If I won the lottery - or otherwise came into wealth - I would love to take my 25 years of experience into the HS classroom - but I can not afford the pay cut.
    Note for disclosure - my wife is elementary teacher with masters degree....while she loves her job her personality is such that in business with a masters she would easily be earning 2x her current salary - energetic, creative, cares about her work and most importantly gets &%!$ done.
  13. Aug 21, 2014 #12
    I've heard it plenty of times, but the word "lazy" isn't always specifically used. "Entitled," "spoiled," "soft," or anything similar will work. It's pretty much the textbook response when people actually want a decent wage for their work: just call them lazy and say that some foreign guy will do it for 3 cents an hour, so they should be happy to as well. Of course, that same foreign guy will get sent to a labor camp for criticizing his government, but nobody's suggesting that Americans should accept that...
  14. Aug 21, 2014 #13


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    How much money you need to live and sustain a quality life also depends on where you live.

    making 30 dollars an hour in upstate NY makes you a king. making 30 dollars an hour in LA makes you poor (relatively speaking)
  15. Aug 21, 2014 #14
    k-12 isn't university. Schools are eager to have industry professionals join their ranks (as long as you're willing to take a pay cut, they have limited budgets). But you also need to know how to teach. You may be brilliant, but if you can't actually teach 14 year olds, or 8 year olds, then what good are you?

    That's what education degree's get you. For many schools, one enters as a subject matter major, gets a degree in that, then concurrently get's their teaching certification by way of education courses in their curriculum.

    That's basically the majority of "teaching" though. Some kids truly want to be there and enjoy learning; those are easy to teach. Most kids, however, would rather be outside playing (or, for many, inside and playing) than be sitting in a classroom learning about protons and Newton. The job of the educator/teacher is not only to have knowledge of the subject matter, but to actually get the children to pay attention and learn it.
    Last edited: Aug 21, 2014
  16. Aug 21, 2014 #15


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  17. Aug 21, 2014 #16
    My kids and their teen peers are not stupid. They see how the other kids live. They know what the other parents do for a living. Given the amount of work required, STEM careers are not as lucrative as many other options, particularly given the cost of a STEM education.

    Allow me this one point: The market determines what STEM graduates are worth. Right now, ignorant managers are farming this work out to people who they may never meet, who may know nothing of the work they're being asked to do and the reasoning is that they do it so cheaply that it's worthwhile to do the job over as many as several times to get things right.

    We are not marketing the STEM professions well. The value of a local, well trained STEM graduate is far higher than it might first seem. But we're going to have to get past a generation of "leaders" who are focused on quarterly profit statements and can not imagine making plans for more than five years in to the future.
  18. Aug 21, 2014 #17
    I overheard faculty in my university, in the US, mention targets for diversity. What that precisely means, I can only guess.

    I think to really excel in STEM, you need to be creative and consistent. In my opinion, it's far easier to be creative and inconsistent. I have no idea how to not be creative/imaginative, but I suppose ADD medicine might work.
  19. Aug 22, 2014 #18
    Sorry, I just don't buy this. Microscopes, telescopes, and well designed meccano/chemistry/electronics sets aren't dangerous. Nannies aren't stupid, they know this.

    There are more fun things to do now than, like computer games and all sorts of audio-visual media on tap 24/7. Maybe the science stuff just gets crowded out by more instantly enjoyable activities.

    Unstructured hobby programming may be one of the activities that distracts kids from real science. I'm old enough not to have encountered programming at school at all! In that supposed golden age of tinkering with TV's and cars, the kids weren't doing any programming.

    This I agree with!
  20. Aug 22, 2014 #19


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    I disagree. I think hobby programming may the single most effective activity in existence for learning quantitative thinking and dealing with formal exactness (as required in math, comp.sci, but also law, for example). And that is a great value in itself, even if one would disregard the often *massive* practical value programming skills have as a "mundane tool". Programming skills can turn many real world problems into trivialities, problems which otherwise might be insurmountable.

    But programming is also a culture technique. The computer is one of the most powerful inventions of mankind ever (I think it would rank shortly after the Haber-Bosch process.. for agricultural fertilizers). And being willing to learn how to deal with it should, at the very least, be considered at the same level of academic rigour as learning to paint, learning to play the violin, or learning math.
  21. Aug 22, 2014 #20

    I went to a leadership conference at SCANA last year and I totally agree with you. One of the speakers went from managing an airport to managing a power plant. He has no technical background at all, a BA in sociology and a MA in sociology and working on a PH.D in organizational leadership. He made that same statement almost verbatim " I'm prepared to lead anything because I have vision and I'm a good leader". I'm sitting there thinking how can you have vision when you don't even have the background knowledge in the field you're trying to lead, you have to be brought up to speed. He got the power plant job because a friend recommended him.
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