For career-minded students, few fields offer better job prospects than science, technology, engineering and math, known collectively as STEM.
“STEM is about innovation and changing the world,” says Juan Gilbert, a professor and chair of the computer and information science and engineering department at the University of Florida. “You have the ability to have a nice income, a nice standard of living and to have an impact on society and the world. That’s an easy sell.”
“The STEM fields continue to be in high demand, leading to strong, positive outcomes,” says Wendy Winter-Searcy, director of the career center at Colorado School of Mines.
STEM disciplines span many academic departments. For students, this means a wide range of available majors. Listed below are a few examples of STEM programs available at many colleges.
STEM Majors List
— Computer science
— Earth sciences
— Health sciences
— Information technology
Contained within these individual disciplines are numerous branches of study leading to various career paths.
For example, a broad field such as biology splinters off into many subfields, including marine biology, molecular biology, biochemistry, ecology and more. Similarly, the field of engineering includes specialties that give students the chance to explore aeronautics, chemistry, electronics and other disciplines.
As technology has advanced, new fields such as data science have emerged, preparing students for in-demand jobs.
“STEM majors have changed dramatically in the last two decades — both the variety of what’s available, the way that we teach and the way students learn the use of technology,” says Bob Kolvoord, a professor and dean of the College of Integrated Science and Engineering at James Madison University in Virginia.
JMU, for example, has developed an integrated science and technology major that Kolvoord says “provides students a strong core of STEM knowledge and then applies it to key technology areas” like biotechnology, energy, environment and modern manufacturing. He says he’s noticed other schools creating data science and neuroscience majors.
“More and more schools are seeing strong student interest in more applied programs,” he wrote in an email.
With so many options on the table, it may be difficult for a student to decide on a STEM major. But with STEM extending across numerous fields, experts say that students won’t be limited in their professional pursuits.
Kolvoord believes that the “walls between disciplines” have come down for STEM majors, opening up new opportunities.
“I think that’s driven folks to say maybe we need to look at providing an education that allows people to not be in disciplinary boxes but to be able to see a broader world that’s involved,” Kolvoord says.
It’s incumbent on students not only to be knowledgeable in their chosen path, but to have at least a novice level of proficiency in other STEM-related fields, experts say.
For example, careers in public health draw on skills from across STEM disciplines. “I tell my students that it’s good you want to make a difference in (the) lives of people with public health, but remember you cannot do it without math and statistics,” says Jagdish Khubchandani, a public health professor at New Mexico State University. “It’s a basic skill. Unless you know how to measure a problem, how do you solve it?”
While a STEM degree is inherently focused on math and science, Kolvoord says the humanities cannot be ignored. For example, he cites the important ethical and philosophical considerations that arise when designing self-driving cars. Engineers must take into account how artificial intelligence will make instantaneous decisions that involve matters of life and death. These kinds of judgements must be informed by the humanities and can’t be left to engineering concepts alone, he says.
Teachers at the high school level are working to train their STEM-focused students for the interdisciplinary world they hope to enter, says Shannon Hughes, a college counselor and STEM department head at Signature School in Evansville, Indiana.
“With COVID there’s a whole new emphasis on research, so students today are more interested in STEM than ever, I think,” she says.
In fact, applications to medical school rose by nearly 18% for the 2021-22 school year, according to data from the Association of American Medical Colleges. That number was led by “historical increases among underrepresented minorities,” according to the AAMC.
“But what’s important is that we give them, from the ground up, the tools that they need to be successful,” Hughes says.
Students Who Should Consider STEM Degrees
There are a number of factors for students to consider when deciding if a STEM degree is the right path, but Khubchandani says it helps to have a natural curiosity in a particular field. An interest in analytical writing and critical evaluation is also a strong indicator that a STEM field might be a good fit, he says.
Kolvoord says that, ideally, a student should have strong analytical and problem-solving skills and be interested in how the world functions, how technology works and how it can develop and affect human life, health and well-being. He also emphasizes solid math skills.
High school students seeking a STEM education in college should keep their grades up, says Winter-Searcy. She also recommends that students participate in outside activities to develop leadership and communication skills.
While students can get a head start on a STEM degree in high school, experts suggest they explore their options before settling on a major.
“The best thing to do would be to take some basic classes in the different disciplines, some introductory classes and see what suits them, what appeals to them intellectually,” Kolvoord says.
Once an initial interest is developed, experts suggest students enroll in higher-level high school courses to see if the material and course work is truly a good fit.
Signature School, for instance, offers a range of Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses for students with an emphasis on project-based learning. The goal is to get students thinking in a way that scientists think.
“We’re just making sure that our students have the fundamentals to be able to be successful in those STEM fields that they want to go into,” Hughes says. “There’s nothing worse than hitting your first science class in college and feeling like you’re not cutting it.”
While it can be difficult to predict industry cycles, those in the STEM profession say they have reason to believe that job prospects for current students will only continue to increase over the next decade. The computer science and data science fields are both soaring, experts say, and they intersect with many industries.
“There’s no end in sight,” Gilbert says. “There’s plenty of opportunities out there and, again, it crosses so many different sectors. It’s a skill set that can transfer to different sectors easily.”
High school students are noticing these trends, Hughes says.
With a wealth of options available, experts urge students to think through their decisions to find the right major.
“I think parents and students should think critically about the return on investment,” Winter-Searcy says.
There’s also more to consider than just the money attached to it, Khubchandani says. Some fields require many years additional schooling while others might require long hours away from loved ones.
“You have to see how you can maintain a balance of life, be healthy and happy,” he says. “That’s a big factor. Think of how much time you want to be in school, what your family priorities are, how much money you want to make and then start reverse plotting.”
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Update 09/16/22: This story was published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.