Science and mathematics are not cool subjects, say students. Consequently, if these subjects are compulsory, students opt for an easier stream in secondary school and are less likely to transition to university science programs. In addition, female students are under-represented in areas such as mathematics, physics and astronomy. Around the world, the STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) are in grave trouble in secondary and tertiary institutions. But worse, STEM university graduates may not work in a field of their expertise, leaving STEM agencies and organizations to hire from a shrinking pool.
In 1995, 14 percent of Year 12 secondary school mathematics students studied advanced mathematics, while 37 percent studied elementary mathematics, according to the Australian Mathematical Science Institute. Fifteen years later, in 2010, 10 percent were studying advanced mathematics and 50 percent took the easier option of elementary mathematics. The Australian Mathematical Science Institute revealed that basic mathematics was growing in popularity among secondary students to the detriment of intermediate or advanced studies. This has resulted in fewer universities offering higher mathematics courses, and subsequently there are reduced graduates in mathematics. There have also been reduced intakes in teacher training colleges and university teacher education departments in mathematics programs, which have resulted in many low-income or remote secondary schools without higher level mathematics teachers, which further resulted in fewer science courses or the elimination of specific topics from courses. For some mathematics courses, this is producing a continuous cycle of low supply, low demand, and low supply.
But is it actually a dire problem? The first question is one of supply. Are universities producing enough quality scientists, technology experts, engineers, and mathematicians? Harold Salzman of Rutgers University and his research colleague, B. Lindsay Lowell of Georgetown University in Washington D.C., revealed in a 2009 study that, contrary to widespread perception, the United States continued to produce science and engineering graduates. However, fewer than half actually accepted jobs in their field of expertise. They are moving into sales, marketing, and health care jobs.
The second question is one of demand. Is there a continuing demand for STEM graduates? An October 2011 report from the Georgetown University’s Centre on Education and the Workforce confirmed the high demand for science graduates, and that STEM graduates were paid a greater starting salary than non-science graduates. The Australian Mathematical Science Institute said the demand for doctorate graduates in mathematics and statistics will rise by 55 percent by 2020 (on 2008 levels). In the United Kingdom, the Department for Engineering and Science report, The Supply and Demand for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematical Skills in the UK Economy (Research Report RR775, 2004) projected the stock of STEM graduates to rise by 62 percent from 2004 to 2014 with the highest growth in subjects allied to medicine at 113 percent, biological science at 77 percent, mathematical science at 77 percent, computing at 77 percent, engineering at 36 percent, and physical science at 32 percent.