I spent today at the USA Science and Engineering Festival focused more on the booths than the performance stages (though the main and Einstein performance stages still couldn’t deal with crowds). My impression of this festival (compared to its predecessors) is that things have shifted a bit more towards a trade show atmosphere. There weren’t as many hands-on activities in evidence compared to 2012 (or even 2010). Without knowing why that seems to have happened, I can’t reasonably opine on whether it’s a problem or not.
One theme that I am glad to see more explicit in this edition of the festival is the permeation of STEM skills and needs beyond the narrow perspective that often dominates policy discussions on the topic. Scientists and engineers can have a variety of different educational and training backgrounds, but for decades it’s been shorthand in Washington that a scientist has a Ph.D., and engineers often do as well. It’s a point of view that may have had value in the middle of the last century, but today is just too narrow to effectively address all the applications of science and technology in the world.
One of the many things I saw and heard these last two days was STEM Premier. The booth had the aura of a headhunter (in the employment recruiting sense) and that made sense once I visited the website. While the closest comparison I could think of is to LinkedIn, STEM Premier is not a social network in the same way as LinkedIn. STEM Premier is a clearinghouse for information on STEM education and training, and provides a means for students, recent graduates, universities and employers to learn about opportunites, and to make connections for jobs, education and training.
In short, the service gets at a pretty big communication problem that many people are tangling with. Nearly all science and engineering Ph.D. holders end up in STEM, but those Ph.D. holders are a much smaller proportion of STEM workers. The more people work to reinforce this message, I think it will get easier to find people interested in STEM work and connect them with schools and employers that can provide the right opportunities. As that computer company used to say, we need to Think Differently.