Educators and lawmakers are always looking for ways to improve the education system, and lately those improvements have focused on teaching STEM, or science, technology, engineering, and math.  The idea, say policymakers, advocates, and executives, is that more focus on STEM education could lead to closing the achievement gaps between US students and students from other countries, as well as provide more professionals for the working world.  But just how important is STEM, and what would an increased focus on it mean for education?

Senior officials with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy say they want students to focus on STEM education to actively participate in global trends, developing their basic skills versus preparing them for specific careers.  If students develop these skills, they are more likely to be able to go into any field they choose.

In fact, the Obama administration has set a goal of producing one million additional STEM undergraduate degree holders by 2022, with an emphasis on the scientific method and critical thinking.  Robert Rodriguez, deputy assistant to the president for education, suggests that “teaching in our schools needs to be informed by the science of learning and support real-world knowledge and experiences for our students.”

However, the notion that there are more STEM jobs available than ever, and therefore more STEM-centric students are needed, may be a false assumption.  Hal Salzman, a professor of planning and public policy at Rutgers University, argues that there is no such shortage; in fact, he says technology companies perpetuate the idea so that they can hire lower-paid workers and have a hand in education reform that supports business goals.  In fact, there are 50% more graduates than jobs, and “wages have been stagnant at 1990s levels, the same as when Bill Clinton was president,” Salzman says. “It’s not a belief, it’s the data.”

There may still be a reason to focus on STEM education beyond merely competing with other countries’ test scores, though.  University of Manchester professor and TV personality Brian Cox suggests that STEM education is about more than just job preparedness or competition.  “I’ve always thought it doesn’t matter to me if these kids go on to study STEM subjects,” he says, “but it’s about being interested in learning and excited about knowledge.”

In addition, he’s found through heading after-school programming with St. Paul’s Way that STEM subjects help raise academic achievement across the board.  “That’s not a coincidence,” Cox insists.  “It’s associating learning and knowledge with enjoyment and wonder.”

While the specific benefits of focusing on STEM education still require research—preferably using the scientific method!—in the end, encouraging students to engage more with their studies does seem to have positive results.