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What Is STEM and What Is a STEM Degree?

Michael McCarthy

Written By: Michael McCarthy

Published: 10/6/2022

STEM is the popular acronym for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. STEM education is a hot topic for teachers, policymakers, and non-experts alike, and with the recent passing of the CHIPS and Science Act, the investment in and access to STEM is set to increase.

STEM's cachet means that you have a wide choice of STEM degree options. But how do the components of STEM differ, and how are they related? And just why is STEM such a common discussion topic? Keep reading for the answers to these questions and more.

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Why Is STEM Important?

For better or worse, advances in STEM have created the conditions around you. History is riddled with advances in medical science, engineering marvels that became commonplace and then obsolete, and innovative technologies that either made tangible improvements to people's lives or proved destructive. STEM-trained individuals made each of these discoveries, even if some of their education was rudimentary by current standards.

STEM research and development has always been political, and it remains so. Policy experts worry about America's competitive edge in STEM because it can affect U.S. defense and economic conditions. But they disagree about the best ways to fund STEM education and research for these and other priorities, such as solving the nation's most pressing health concerns.

What Is STEM Education?

STEM education is any program with an emphasis in one of the four STEM components. STEM students generally take coursework in a variety of science and math subfields, including biology, chemistry, physics, algebra, trigonometry, and calculus.

Most of these disciplines underpin engineering and technological knowledge, so they're useful in all varieties of STEM. For example, most types of engineers need to understand the effects of physical stresses on the structures they design, which calls for knowledge of both physics and calculus.

What Are the Benefits of a STEM Education?

STEM education may equip you with tools to help secure a career at the forefront of science or technological innovation. Even if your goal isn't to change the world, your education might still qualify for a relatively stable, lucrative career. Median pay for STEM occupations is more than twice the pay for non-STEM roles, and STEM jobs are growing at a faster relative rate.

What Are the Drawbacks of a STEM Education?

It's possible that you'll miss out on some personally fulfilling subject matter and experiences as a student of STEM rather than the humanities or social sciences.

More worryingly, STEM fields are highly competitive given how well they pay, and the intense competition can create mental health challenges. This competition starts even before college, with students in special STEM programs under pressure to maintain high GPAs, compete in extracurricular activities, and ultimately get into top universities. The pressure tends to ramp up in college, because many occupations in science and math call for more advanced degrees, so students might feel compelled to overexert themselves. Unsurprisingly, anxiety and depression are also rife in STEM graduate school programs.

STEM has a major diversity problem, which starts with structural barriers in education. In many STEM programs, women and students from underrepresented groups might struggle with a sense of belonging.

What Is a STEM Degree?

Most people take STEM degrees to include any program in the natural and physical sciences, computer science and information technology, any variety of engineering, and mathematics. This typically excludes the social sciences, except where psychology overlaps with brain physiology and biology.

Most people take STEM degrees to include any program in the natural and physical sciences, computer science and information technology, any variety of engineering, and mathematics.

One debated topic is whether STEM includes medicine and the health sciences. For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) doesn't include doctors and nurses in its list of STEM occupations, and the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) doesn't list medicine as a STEM field. But ACT, Inc. — the company behind the ACT college admissions test — classifies medicine and health as STEM majors.

What Are Some Popular STEM Degrees?

The latest data from the NCES places engineering as the most popular STEM subject for undergraduates, with biology and biomedical science a close second. Men account for 76% of engineering graduates, but women dominate biology at 64%.

Interested in learning more about stem degrees? Explore our guides to computer science, computer programming, data science, and engineering programs.

What Are STEM Jobs?

STEM careers are as wide-ranging as STEM degrees. For example, a biology major might work as a biological technician in a university laboratory before becoming a food scientist for a food and beverage company. Similarly, a math graduate may analyze numbers as an operations research analyst before deciding to pursue an actuarial certification.

Are STEM Jobs in Demand?

As a group, STEM occupations are growing at a faster than average rate of 10.8%. The BLS projects a total of 10,994,200 STEM jobs nationwide by the end of 2031. The fastest growing job, statistician, might be best suited for math majors with a master's degree. But the second fastest, information security analyst, is attainable with an undergraduate cybersecurity degree.

What Are Some Popular STEM Careers?

According to BLS data, the following are the five most popular STEM careers by number of practitioners. Technology and engineering occupations dominate this list.

Annual Median Salary:  $109,020
Job Growth: 25%

1,622,200 jobs in 2021

2,033,600 jobs projected for 2031

Annual Median Salary:  $99,270
Job Growth: 9%

538,800 jobs in 2021

589,700 jobs projected for 2031

Annual Median Salary:  $80,660
Job Growth: 3%

333,200 jobs in 2021

344,500 jobs projected for 2031

Annual Median Salary:  $88,050
Job Growth: 7%

318,300 jobs in 2021

340,400 jobs projected for 2031

Annual Median Salary:  $101,780
Job Growth: 3%

303,800 jobs in 2021

313,600 jobs projected for 2031

Bottom Line

STEM education helps train the next generation of science, technology, engineering, and math professionals. These jobs are important because they're at the forefront of advances in technology, medicine, agriculture, and other fields that improve people's lives. STEM careers tend to pay well and are mostly growing at a steady rate, but are highly competitive.

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