STEM Programs refer to undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Primarily, it focuses on engineering and physical science education. Furthermore, literacy in STEM fields tends to be an innovative and critical thinker. Hence, STEM literacy translates into employment in the increasingly knowledge and idea-based economy.
Due to the role of STEM in driving the economic prosperity of the USA, European countries, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea, there is a belief about a natural correlation between STEM education and economic prosperity. Hence, there has been an investment in expanding STEM education in most less-developed countries. Consequentially, a few countries like India have overtaken the USA in the number of STEM graduates produced per million of the population. For example, in 2016, China and India produced 4.7 million and 2.6 million STEM graduates, respectively, far higher than the USA’s 568,000 graduates.
India produces five times more STEM graduates than the USA. Does it mean that, like the USA, India has been driving Wealth and job creation out of STEM education? If true, why has India suffered from Jobless graduates and worthless degree syndrome with STEM graduates? If the quality issue is addressed, why will India succeed in reaching high-income status like Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan have attained by leveraging STEM education?
Although there has been a strong correlation between economic prosperity and STEM graduates in OECD member countries, it’s not universally true. Notably, less developed countries like India and Bangladesh have been suffering from growing unemployment among STEM graduates. For example, if 85% of engineering graduates in India do not get Engineering jobs, how can the economy adequately gain from STEM education? Such reality raises a vital question: is STEM education good enough for creating jobs and driving prosperity?
STEM Education Programs
STEM education programs have three major branches: engineering, physical sciences, and mathematics. Major disciplines in engineering are (i) Mechanical, (ii) Civil, (iii) Electrical, (iv) Computer, and (v) Chemical. Degree programs in physical sciences include Chemistry, Physics, Material Science, Earth Science, and Geography. Besides, there are degree programs in Mathematics. In addition to offering formal degree programs in these areas, STEM education is a core building block in primary and high school education.
How do Nations Rise by Leveraging STEM?
There is a widespread belief that STEM literacy and degree means gainful employment in higher-earning jobs for today’s and tomorrow’s workforce. Hence, the obvious question we face—is what it takes to create high-paying jobs by leveraging STEM education.
If STEM knowledge creation and education create higher-earning jobs, why could not Muslims’ glory in science in the Middle Ages do the same? On the other hand, the UK-led Europe drove prosperity and created high-income jobs, unfolding the first industrial revolution by leveraging STEM. Similarly, by leveraging Electrical Science and Engineering and the Internal Combustion Engine, the USA rose as the most powerful economy during the first half of the 20th century. Besides leveraging semiconductors through the knowledge of quantum mechanics, the USA succeeded further in creating high-income jobs and startup success stories. By joining this race of advancing semiconductor research and education and exploiting it in reinvention and Incremental Innovation, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan have risen to high-income status.
On the other hand, by accelerating STEM education and scientific publications, although India has made some success in creating IT service export jobs and earning remittance through exporting their graduates, India’s $2,200 per capita GDP is far less than $15,000, $32,000, $34,000, $39,000 of China, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan (in 2023) respectively. Of course, colonization could be attributed to India’s poor economic health. Ironically, in the post-colonial era in the 1950s, India’s per capita GDP was higher than those of them.
Of course, literacy in STEM fields tends to sharpen innovative and critical thinking, but that is not enough to create economic value from STEM. Innovativeness and critical thinking may lead to numerous ideas and grassroots innovations. But they must be scaled up to develop high-income jobs through profit-making revenue.
Leveraging STEM Education for Driving Incremental Innovations and Reinventions
The primary purpose of STEM education has been in innovation. Although there is a need for technical skills for installing, configuring, operating, and repairing technological solutions, such skill development is not the target of STEM education.
To create economic value, we need to succeed in advancing existing products through incremental innovation and reinvention. More importantly, we must trade that advancement for profit in the market. Hence, innovation and creativity are not good enough. STEM graduates must win the global innovation race to create economic value. Besides, STEM programs must focus on empathy and passion for perfection. Therefore, to enable graduates to create economic value, STEM education must encompass skills for understanding customer preferences, wealth creation dynamics out of technology possibilities, and rational decision-making ability to win global competition.
Besides, policymakers should create ample opportunities in the local economy for turning STEM ideas into profitable revenue through generating economic value. In this regard, lessons could be drawn from the rise of Japan and Taiwan through semiconductors and China’s rise in electric vehicles.
This article is part of a book, Engineering Economics and Management–Modern Day Perspective.