Innovation and Stem Education

Publication Date: 
Monday, March 26, 2012

Drs. Lynne Holt, David Colburn, and Lynn Leverty
The Reubin O.D’ Askew Institute on Politics and Society, University of Florida

The Jobs of Tomorrow

If we have learned anything during the past twenty years, it is that tomorrow’s occupation may not be today’s. Who would have thought that automation would render switchboard operators, assembly workers, and aircraft and automobile production welders obsolete? Twenty years ago, we would not have predicted demand for online community managers, tele-work coordinators, search engine optimization specialists, and sustainability managers. Rapidly changing technologies and global competition make it very difficult to predict occupations and occupational needs. As an example, biotechnology and information technology are changing so rapidly that one’s technical knowledge in those fields may become outdated very quickly. And then there are global developments which impinge on job demands and growth. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects, for example, no growth in demand for engineers in electronics because of foreign competition.  BLS also projects a declining demand for chemical engineers because overall U.S. employment in chemical manufacturing is projected to be lower. Yet, even in sectors that are expected to experience declining demand, the numbers can be somewhat misleading. While it is true that chemical manufacturing jobs may be scarcer in the U.S., demand for chemical engineers employed in nanotechnology and biotechnology is projected to increase significantly.

The bottom line is: we cannot educate tomorrow’s workers for specific occupations today, because we cannot be sure these jobs will be there tomorrow. But we can educate workers to be more innovative and creative.

Innovation and Economic Growth

Generating new ideas and new approaches are ways of conceptualizing innovation. Innovation results in new knowledge which, in turn, leads to the development of technologically new or improved products and processes. Moreover, innovation is not limited to science and technology, nor is it restricted to new products and processes.Although the OECD’s “Oslo Manual” reports that “Scientific knowledge and engineering skills are a primary support for business innovation,”  Walter Isaacson reminds us in his biography of Steven Jobs that Jobs’ success and that of Apple resulted from the intersection of liberal arts and engineering. In Jobs’ view, the liberal arts were essential to the creative process at Apple and helped ensure the appeal of its innovative products.

So where does the United States stand in preparing its workers for the new economy when compared to other countries? The United States was once the world leader by most measures, particularly in the development and use of information and communications technologies which are so central to modern economies. But recent indicators suggest that its status as an innovation leader is no longer assured.

The Global Innovation Index 2011, for example, ranks 125 countries in terms of innovation inputs and
outputs drawn from an array of metrics. The United States ranks 11th, behind several European countries, Canada (8th), and Singapore (1st), with respect to innovation inputs. In the index that measures innovation outputs, the U.S. ranks 5th, ahead of both China (14) and Singapore (17). The scientific output index, which is subsumed under economic outputs, ranks the U.S. (5th), ahead of China (9th) and Singapore (14th), but both are closing the gap rapidly with many more of their students pursuing degrees in science and engineering. The image below lists the ten most innovative countries (with Sweden leading the group) in terms of scientific output.

Scientific Output Index


(Source: Global Innovation Index 2011, score 0-100.)

The Global Innovation Index may be suboptimal in comparing the U.S. supply of scientists and engineers to that of other countries, because reporting dates and the nature of post-secondary institutions in comparison countries vary significantly. Moreover, compared to developed countries, developing countries tend to have a larger percentage of graduates in STEM fields, particularly in engineering. What can be deduced from various, albeit imperfect, indicators used for global comparisons, however, is that workforce expansion in the STEM fields in this nation is not as rapid as in other countries, including other developed countries.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) collects a vast amount of data about post-secondary students, including those majoring in STEM fields. Those who hold engineering degrees account for more than one-third of the total research and development (R&D) workforce in this country, and R&D activity tends to fuel innovation in both products and processes. At the doctorate level more than half of the 2009 degree recipients in engineering came from other nations. The actual number of doctorates in engineering awarded to students with temporary visas almost doubled from 1999 to 2009, but increased only slightly for U.S. citizens and permanent residents. Admittedly, many of the foreign doctorate recipients remain in the U.S. for a period of time either to work or to become post-docs. The U.S. federal government allows foreign students on student visas who graduate with STEM degrees to remain in the U.S. for additional time to receive work experience. Most STEM occupations, however, do not require Ph.D.s but do require at least some post-secondary education. A report by Georgetown University projects that approximately 89% of all jobs will require some post-secondary education by 2018.

Distribution of Stem Jobs by Education Level in Florida, 2018


(Source: STEM State-Level Analysis)

Is STEM Education Important for Innovation?

As previously noted, occupations can and do change, so educating people for specific occupations is not a smart long-term strategy. Moreover, according to BLS, STEM occupations accounted for only 6% of total occupations in the U.S. in May 2009. By 2018, STEM jobs are projected to increase in both Florida and the nation but are not projected to exceed 4% of total jobs in Florida. So a cogent argument can be made for focusing less on occupations and more on the attributes of a STEM education that benefit the entire population and speak more broadly to workforce needs.

“According to BLS, STEM occupations accounted for only 6% of total occupations in the U.S. in May 2009.”STEM education is arguably important not as an end in itself, but is a means of making people innovative and productive in all their endeavors.  To that end, several components of STEM education are very valuable in promoting student advancement by encouraging them to: ask questions, develop critical thinking skills, analyze large quantities of data, learn from hands-on experimentation, identify connections between different disciplines, persist in problem solving even at the risk of failure, work collaboratively, learn good communications skills, and strengthen research skills.

The importance of thinking critically and creatively is highlighted in a biography of Physicist and Nobel-laureate Richard Feynman:

“In science, almost every significant new idea is wrong (there is a mathematical error) or more substantially wrong (as beautiful as the idea is, nature chooses not to exploit it). If that were not the case, then pushing the frontiers of science forward would be almost too easy.

In light of this, scientists have two choices. Either they can choose to follow well-trodden ground and push solid results a tad further with a reasonable assurance of success. Or they can strike out into new and dangerous territory, where there are no guarantees and they have to be prepared for failure… Beyond this, unexpected ideas resulting from proposals that lead nowhere, at least as far as the original problem is concerned, nevertheless sometimes carry scientists in a direction that was completely unanticipated, and which every now and then can hold the key to progress. Sometimes ideas that don’t work in one area of science end up being just what was needed to break a logjam elsewhere.”

While the cutting-edge research pursued by Feynman may not have applicability for all scientific investigation, the ability of workers to employ their intellectual talents fully can bolster productivity and ingenuity.

Developing and Improving STEM Competencies

There is widespread agreement that the conditions for nurturing an innovative mindset and facilitating STEM competencies must be developed in primary and secondary schools and advanced at universities. To that end the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Education have launched a series of grant initiatives in recent years. Florida has a number of highly successful STEM initiatives. A few of these initiatives are summarized below:

Federal Initiatives

The NSF Graduate STEM Fellows in K-12 Education (GK-12 program) was launched to provide funding for graduate students in science, engineering, technology, and mathematics. This program seeks to improve graduate students’ skills in communicating scientific concepts and teaching. In the process, graduate students partner with teachers and help them make systemic changes in the teaching of science and other STEM disciplines in U.S. middle and high schools.  Started in 1999, this program has funded 200 projects at 140 universities throughout the U.S.  GK-12 programs are presently implemented at seven universities in Florida. The University of Florida is partnering with five middle schools in Alachua County to make the curriculum more conducive to inquiry-based learning – learning that promotes innovative thinking. According to SPICE project director, Doug Levey, middle school students are the best population to target in terms of return on investment for several reasons: they have not lost their sense of wonder and can grasp fairly complex concepts without necessarily expecting easy answers.  Moreover, in middle school, girls are as interested as boys in science. After middle school, research shows that girls and disadvantaged students are, for a variety of reasons, less likely to continue studying STEM subjects.

“According to SPICE project director, Doug Levey, middle school students are the best population to target in terms of return on investment for several reasons: they have not lost their sense of wonder and can grasp fairly complex concepts without necessarily expecting easy answers.”

Another NSF program has provided support since 2004 for teacher leadership institutes which enlist K-12 teachers and expose them to more inquiry-based curricula at the university level. Teachers receive financial support to attend the Institutes. Equipped with new teaching techniques and tools, teachers are encouraged to share their knowledge with colleagues in their schools who have not been exposed to this training. Two important outcomes have resulted: rejuvenated curricula in science and math in the public school systems; and an evaluation component that assesses progress made by participating teachers and their students.

Although these NSF initiatives – GK-12, and the Teacher Institutes– have different objectives, they are both concerned with systemic reform of science and math instruction, they endorse the importance of partnerships, and they recognize that teachers are critical to transforming the science and mathematics curricula.

The U.S. Department of Education has also supported STEM education initiatives through its “Race to the Top” initiative, and throughits Minority Science and Engineering Improvement awards, including to Miami-Dade College.   Florida was one of the recipients of “Race to the Top” funding. The activities Florida has undertaken to nurture students to pursue STEM fields in secondary school are summarized in the Center on Instruction’s report on the eleven states that received funding for “Race to the Top” in Phases 1 and 2. Although Florida has adopted Common Core standards in math, it has yet to do so in science.

Florida Initiatives

Aside from its efforts to comply with federal “Race to the Top” requirements, Florida has had an active interest in STEM strategic planning in recent years. The Florida Center for Research in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics held a series of five business roundtables in early 2010, which culminated in a report that elaborated on four outcomes Florida’s business community would like to see with respect to STEM education. The first two were the highest priorities: (1) increase the percentage of graduates in high school, college and graduate school who can: undertake STEM projects involving inquiry and quantitative competency that make use of “innovative approaches and strategies,” work collaboratively, integrate skills within STEM, and have reading, writing, and oral proficiency in English and another language; (2) increase the quality and number of educators in K-12 STEM subjects; (3) increase the number and commitment of business-education partnerships; and (4) improve the awareness of graduates at all levels of STEM education opportunities.  The Center subsequently drafted a strategic plan to attach action items to the first two priorities and to create sustainable leadership that aligns STEM initiatives to state needs and demand. More recently, Governor Rick Scott endorsed these initiatives and announced in the Fall 2012 that he would “prioritize Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics in education.”

STEMflorida, Inc., a not-for--profit organization with the mission of providing leadership for Florida’s STEM initiatives, developed a five-year strategic plan that assesses state efforts to cultivate STEM graduates and provides data on the supply and demand of STEM graduates for Florida’s workforce.   The plan is organized around four categories of indicators: talent, education, climate and collaboration, and research.  The “scores” for how Florida performed for each indicator cluster are: “extremely proficient, “proficient,” “qualified,” “lagging,” and “severely lagging.” Three of the four categories are described as “proficient,” but for education the score is characterized as “qualified,” due to low FCAT scores, the percentage of science and engineering degrees conferred, the percentage of teachers with requisite math preparation in 8th grade, and the number of STEM graduates with Master’s degrees and doctorates.  The plan also includes demographic data on STEM graduates and programs available to target audiences in K-12 (pp.44-45) and post-secondary institution STEM-related data.

Focusing on What Works and Does Not

With all the STEM educational initiatives taking place, are there projects and practices that have successfully instilled STEM competencies in students? The Carnegie Institute of New York and the Institute for Advanced Study have collected “best” practices of schools and other venues, such as museums, in enriching the STEM curricula for all students. There are many examples of emerging best practices but one, in particular, should not be overlooked and that is “infusing mathematics and science across the curriculum to deepen student learning.” Innovation often emerges when STEM disciplines are linked to other disciplines. Reading skills can also be improved by infusing them with science content and the Carnegie Institute cites two examples of this approach: the Seeds of Science/Roots of Reading program at the University of California- Berkeley and the Concept-Oriented Reading Instruction (CORI) at the University of Maryland.

In the CORI program, both science and reading are aligned to enhance conceptual knowledge. When these processes are aligned, students learn more readily. In reading, the aims are to activate student background knowledge, questioning, searching, summarizing, and organizing knowledge. In inquiry science, the basic processes include asking questions, designing experiments, collecting data, representing information quantitatively, interpreting findings, and communicating the findings to others.

A small public high school in Ohio describes its philosophy in promoting STEM competencies this way: “Metro has developed and implemented an integrated math and science curriculum where mathematics becomes a component of the ‘language’ of science. (This approach emphasizes the importance of a fluent knowledge of mathematical and scientific process, application through more in-depth science exploration, elements and aspects of design, and innovation. As a component of the ‘language’ of science, students must demonstrate the ability to communicate numerically, graphically, algebraically, verbally, and in writing their understanding and evaluation of empirical evidence in all that they do.”  The jobs of the future will require mastery of these “languages,” and students who grasp them will be in a better position to succeed in tomorrow’s jobs.

Challenges to STEM Education

While the federal government and state leaders have focused considerable attention on the need for teacher and student preparation in STEM fields, other challenges remain. If we consider the development of STEM competencies as a means of furthering innovation in the workplace, there are several trends that are not helpful.  For example, teaching to the test, the lack of a holistic educational strategy to nurture students in STEM disciplines, and the absence of public scientific literacy combine to create barriers to successful STEM strategies. Each of these challenges is discussed briefly below:

A. Teaching to the Test

One of the metrics for determining how well Florida students are prepared for higher education and career opportunities in math and science is their performance on the FCAT and state achievement tests, including the end-of-course assessments in Algebra 1, Biology 1, and Geometry. The problem with the focus on test achievement is that taking multiple choice tests is not compatible with inquiry-based learning. Although students obviously need to master scientific and mathematical concepts, inquiry-based learning demands a different set of skills and educational experiences. Asking questions through independent thinking, struggling to find answers, and persisting in that endeavor are critical skill sets. In many cases in the sciences, answers are not even as critical as posing the right question and developing the hypotheses and assumptions to pursue an answer which may or may not be forthcoming.

B. Need for Diverse Educational Backgrounds

The emphasis on STEM education puts at risk other types of education required to better prepare students to make decisions that are innovative, creative,  thoughtful, and principled. The danger at all levels of the STEM education pipeline is reducing support for non-STEM subjects in the belief that it ensures more support for STEM and thus the advancement of more students in STEM areas. We all are now aware that Steve Job’s innovations were informed by his exposure to calligraphy and design. However, there are many other examples of CEOs and business leaders, whose brilliance resulted from a broad-based education that enabled them to ask the right questions and challenge traditional thinking. Such ability typically results not from a technical education, but from one that is enriched by expansive thinking and reading. Successful philosophy majors include former President Bill Clinton; Michael Spence, a Nobel Prize winning economist; and financier George Soros. Astronaut Sally Rider, Supreme Court Judge Clarence Thomas, and Nobel prize laureate Harold Varmus were English majors. Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, was a major in medieval history.

“The danger at all levels of the STEM education pipeline is reducing support for non-STEM subjects in the belief that it ensures more support for STEM and thus the advancement of more students in STEM areas.”

The application of scientific discoveries also requires an ability to draw upon an understanding of philosophy, literature, history, and other subjects in the liberal arts to advance the human condition. Gregory Petsko, a Professor in Biochemistry and Chemistry, points this out as well when he observed:

“One of the things I’ve written about is the way genomics is changing the world we live in. Our ability to manipulate the human genome is going to pose some very difficult questions for humanity in the next few decades, including the question of just what it means to be human. That isn’t a question for science alone; it’s a question that must be answered with input from every sphere of human thought, including – especially including – the humanities and arts. Science unleavened by the human heart and the human spirit is sterile, cold, and self-absorbed. It’s also unimaginative: some of my best ideas as a scientist have come from thinking and reading about things that have, superficially, nothing to do with science. If I’m right that what it means to be human is going to be one of the central issues of our time, then universities that are best equipped to deal with it, in all its many facets, will be the most important institutions of higher learning in the future.”

C. Public Support for Scientific Endeavors

In a recent survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, scientists were asked about the scientific literacy of the public.  Eighty-five percent responded that the public’s lack of knowledge about science was a major problem and made it very difficult to gain public consensus for certain areas of scientific research.

Scientists’ Perceptions of Public Knowledge, Expectations and Media

Scientists’ Views of Problems
With Science

Major Problem %

Minor/Not a Problem %

Public does not know very much about science



News media oversimplify scientific findings



Public expects solutions to problems too quickly



Compounding this problem, scientists viewed the media’s knowledge and reporting of science as ineffectual and often a liability in helping the public distinguish between scientific findings that are well established and those that are not. The Pew Center gave a quiz to 1,000 adults to assess their knowledge of basic scientific concepts. The survey revealed that approximately half the adults responded incorrectly to four of 12 questions involving basic scientific knowledge. The survey responses suggest that various venues for improving scientific literacy among adults are essential.  One such approach in Florida and elsewhere is to provide greater public exposure to natural history museums.

A Holistic Approach to Developing STEM Enterprises

One approach to increasing the STEM workforce in the state is to recruit companies from other states, as Florida has done with Scripps and Burnham. Another approach is to advance an educational system that promotes more STEM-proficient Floridians and that then pro-actively establishes policies to enable STEM-proficient graduates to remain in Florida and start their own companies.

Florida has been pursuing both approaches and most recently committed to nurturing business incubators at Florida’s research universities. While this approach makes a good deal of sense, it is not a panacea. Business start-ups housed in incubators will provide only a small percentage of the state’s STEM-related jobs under the best of circumstances, and there is no guarantee that they will prosper in the longer term. There is also relatively little research about the characteristics of successful incubators. Support for incubators should include a process of careful evaluation and assessment to ensure their long-term success.

Like many states, Florida has committed resources to developing industry clusters that rely on a workforce equipped with STEM competencies. These include clean technologies, life sciences, and aviation and aerospace. The underlying concept of clusters is that a concentration of companies of this sort will attract or spin-off others and accelerate the demand for a skilled workforce in these fields. Clusters often take many years to develop and thrive, however. Certain companies in such areas as biomedicine and pharmaceutical drug development can take years and often depend on the availability of venture capital.

To facilitate the growth of young people with STEM competencies in Florida, policy makers should support programs that enable teachers to pursue internships at STEM industries. The PRISM program for teachers in Central Florida is one such successful example that has enhanced STEM education for teachers and students.   Similarly, policy makers should initiate a student internship initiative at STEM businesses so that students have more opportunity for hands-on experience. One of the weakest links in efforts to systemically reform Florida’s science curriculum is the paucity of student internships.

Universities should also take the lead in fostering internships and in embracing holistic approaches to STEM. Both are likely to be more effective than those that take a narrower approach for producing an innovative workforce and citizenry. Students are more likely to be successful innovators if they are self-confident, skilled problem solvers who have sophisticated intellectual skills and can communicate and collaborate with a wide array of people. Cammy Abernathy, Dean of the College of Engineering, University of Florida, states:

“No engineer is an island. The most successful engineers immerse themselves in the lives of the people around them, finding ways to make life better for everyone. They spend their careers in the service of others, solving practical problems and meeting tangible needs. Their passion motivates them to do the unexpected, attempt the risky and attain the impossible.

The best engineers – the ones truly destined to make a difference – reflexively reach beyond cultural, temporal, and disciplinary boundaries. They understand that isolationism is a death sentence to creativity, but embracing differences cultivates innovation.”



For BLS occupation projections, see Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Occupational Handbook, 2010-2011 Edition,”

OECD and Eurostat, the Oslo Manual, 2005, p. 11,

In 2011 Sweden led 25 developed nations in weighted metrics used to assess “useful connectivity,” the nexus between consumers (residential and businesses) and economic development. The U.S. was a close second. See Leonard Waverman, Kaylan Dasgupta, and Janne Rajala, “Connectivity Scorecard 2011,” May 5, 2011, p. 22,

Sumitra Dutta, INSEAD, “The Global Innovation Index, 2011,”

This seems to be the conclusion of the National Science Foundation, too: “There are no comprehensive measures of the global S&E labor force, but fragmentary data on the global S&E labor force suggest that the U.S. world share is continuing to decline, even as U.S. reliance on foreign-born scientists and engineers may be near or at a historic high.” See National Science Foundation, “Science and Education Labor Force,” Ch. 3, p. 48,

See U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, “STEM-Designated Degree Program List, 2011 Revised list,” On May 2011, this list was expanded to include additional majors.

Anthony P. Carnevale, Nicole Smith, and Michelle Melton, “STEM State-Level Analysis,” Center on Education and the Workforce, Georgetown University, October, 20, 2011,

Ben Cover, John I. Jones, and Audrey Watson, “Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics,” Monthly Labor Review, May 2011,, p. 1.

Anthony P. Carnevale et al., op. cit.

Telephone conversation with Lynne Holt and Douglas Levey, November 21, 2011.

Lynne E. Ford, “Women and Politics: the Pursuit of Equality,” 3rd ed. Boston: Cengage Learning, 2006, p. 253.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 provided $4.35 billion for the “Race to the Top” initiative. The U.S. Department of Education established a competitive grant program to spur states to reform their education systems. STEM was considered a priority and state applications were required to develop rigorous curricula; form cooperative partnerships to assist teachers in developing STEM content and availing themselves of applied learning opportunities; and prepare more students, particularly from underrepresented groups, to pursue further education and careers in STEM disciplines.

See U.S. Department of Education, “Education Department Awards Nearly $2.9 Million in Colleges and Universities to Strengthen Minority Participation in STEM-Related Fields,” September 30, 2011.

Center on Instruction, “Summary of Funded Race to the Top Applications: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics: Activities in Eleven States and the District of Columbia, 2011,” Florida is entering the second year of the program and has experienced setbacks in drafting and executing program contracts.

Florida Center for Research in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, “Education Link Report,” August 2010,

Florida Center for Research in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, “Florida STEM Strategic Plan,” April 2011,

“Rick Scott's Economic Development Priorities Include Focus on STEM Education,” Tampa Bay Times, October 12, 2011,

STEMflorida, Five-year Strategic Plan: STEM Leadership for Florida, June 2011,

The Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Institute for Advanced Study Commission on Mathematics and Science Education, “The Opportunity Equation: Transforming Mathematics and Science Education for Citizenship and the Global Economy,” 2009, p. 14,

CORI, “Reading-Science Integration Goals,”

See Metro’s philosophy at

Gregory A. Petsko, A Faustian bargain. Genome Biology 2010, 11:138.

The Pew Center for the People & the Press, “Scientific Achievements Less prominent Than a Decade Ago: Public Praises Science; Scientists Fault Public, Media,” July 9, 2009, Approximately 2,500 scientists were surveyed on these and other issues.

For information about the PRISM Project, see

Conversation with Mary Jo Koroly, Lynn Leverty and Lynn Holt at University of Florida, November 9, 2011.

“New Dean Reflects on Engineering,” University of Florida News, September 14, 2009,

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