Higher Ed

STEM Solutions

Colleges and universities, along with state government, are busy filling the pipeline of much needed workers with science, technology, engineering and math skills.

Many of the most important jobs of today – and more significantly, the future – fall under the banner of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). This includes careers in fields as diverse as architecture, food sciences, surveying/mapping and medicine, with the average annual salary being $100,900, compared to $55,260 for non-STEM occupations, according to a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report issued earlier this year.

Yet the world is facing an alarming shortage of talent in many of these areas, and experts say almost 60% of the 3.5 million US-based STEM jobs will go unfilled over the next two years because of a lack of qualified workers.

The STEM talent pipeline appears to be at particular risk in New Jersey, one of the nation’s top exporters of college students with less than half of New Jersey high school graduates pursuing higher education in the state and about 20,000 college graduates choosing to live and work elsewhere. This becomes even more significant when you consider New Jersey has the most STEM jobs per square mile in the country.

The Governor’s STEM Scholars (GSS), a public-private partnership founded in 2013 to support high-achieving New Jersey students in grades 10 through doctoral level, is one of a handful of organizations trying to reverse the trend and build up the state’s talent pool. By 2027, STEM jobs will grow by 9% in New Jersey, and the GSS’s objective is to identify gifted young residents to fill these roles and secure an academic/workforce pipeline for the future.

“STEM careers are the clearest path to statewide economic growth and individual wealth-building, with opportunities in New Jersey driven by key industry clusters, including technology, bio/pharmaceutical and life sciences, and advanced manufacturing,” says Alise Roderer, director of the GSS, which has graduated more than 700 New Jersey students in the last 10 years, with 99% continuing in STEM studies and jobs. “The program’s goal is to introduce scholars to build genuine connections with STEM professionals, companies and organizations so that when they are ready to look for an institution of higher education, an internship in the STEM field or their first job, they first look to New Jersey for these opportunities.”

Equal STEM Opportunities for All

Despite the fact that New Jersey public schools consistently rank first in the nation, many students – particularly females and those of lower socioeconomic status – have had limited experience with STEM education. Of the New Jersey students taking high school Advanced Placement (AP) computer science classes, less than a quarter are female and just 12% are from minority groups (non-White or Asian). Women make up 50% of the college-educated workforce, but just 28% of the STEM workforce, and 40% of Black and 37% of Latino students ultimately switch out of STEM majors, compared to 29% of white students.

All that may be changing, however, as more women and minorities are being encouraged to get into the STEM fields. In the GSS Class of 2022, 64% of students identified as female and 83% as students of color, and the New Jersey STEM Pathways Network (NJSPN), a strategic public-private alliance established in 2014 by the New Jersey Office of the Secretary of Higher Education, recently launched a diversity and inclusion initiative called “I Can STEM” to recognize New Jersey STEM professionals who are people of color, women and/or identify as LGBTQ+. “The NJSPN aims to attract, cultivate and retain a 21st century workforce in New Jersey, ensuring the state remains a top global competitor in STEM industries and continues its rich history of innovation,” Roderer adds.

A Hands-on Experience

Some New Jersey colleges and universities have also been stepping up their programs to prepare students to grow within the rapidly evolving STEM fields. One of these is Union-based Kean University, whose New Jersey Center for Science and Technology Education (NJCSTE) was founded in 2003 to explore interdisciplinary teaching of STEM. Program enrollment went from 30 first-year students in 2014 to 60 this year – with all 60 being admitted as a cohort to build a network of support for higher retention rates.

Within the NJCSTE, which is being replaced this year by the School of Integrative Science and Technology (School of IST), students can pursue degrees in computational science, biomedicine and molecular biology, and there’s also a core focus on training STEM teachers in math, chemistry or biology – areas where New Jersey has a shortage. Over the last year, the university has made a $3 million investment in core research infrastructure upgrades, in addition to opening new facilities in the George Hennings Research Wing on Kean’s main campus.

David Joiner, PhD, acting associate dean of the NJCSTE, says the fastest-growing fields for Kean graduates are in data, life and pharmaceutical sciences, and these opportunities not only exist within the state, but for those who live within commuting distance of Philadelphia and New York City – both major areas for STEM. “Modern STEM jobs are not isolated in a single discipline, and they don’t stay the same over the years,” he says. “Students who want to succeed in STEM careers need an education that prepares them to grow with the field and adapt to new information and technology. It’s also important that students learn to work and communicate in teams and think critically in novel situations.”

The STEM program at New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) goes back to the institute’s founding in 1881 as a technical school to prepare a workforce for the thriving industrial center in Newark. “The mission remains the same: prepare students for skilled, high-paying jobs,” says Dr. Teik C. Lim, who took over as NJIT president in July. “Since our inception, NJIT has grown, and we now offer everything from our renowned engineering and manufacturing programs to computer science and data analytics, forensic science, financial technology and New Jersey’s only public, accredited bachelor’s architecture program.”

NJIT also believes in blending classroom instruction with hands-on experiences and has developed a 21,000-square-foot Makerspace – the largest of its kind in New Jersey – where students develop professional skills by using the same kind of high-end equipment found in the industry. The institute also encourages “real-world experiences” through projects like the Hillier College of Architecture’s Newark Design Collaborative, which works with the City of Newark through design studios, independent projects, and seminars to achieve impact in the city’s neighborhoods.

“Higher education today is very holistic, and students are looking for experiential learning and mastery of working in teams,” Lim says. “To be a great STEM professional, you need to design, build, execute and create for the betterment of humanity. The students who are successful are those not necessarily with the highest grades, but those who work well with people and express empathy for others.”

As for the future, Lim believes the STEM fields will lead the way in the post-pandemic economic recovery – in the world, the US, New Jersey – and Newark. “We know it will help the city, because as soon as you earn a STEM degree, you move up a couple of steps on the ladder of socioeconomic status,” he says. “We recognize talent is everywhere, but opportunity is not. A career in STEM can change a life, and we want to change as many lives as we can.”

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