What Is STEM and Why Is It Important?
Published on July 31, 2020
- STEM consists of the natural sciences, math, engineering, and tech-related fields.
- Most STEM jobs are in high demand but suffer from a lack of qualified candidates.
- STEM is necessary for growing the economy and staying globally competitive.
You've likely heard the term STEM, but what does it stand for? STEM is an acronym for science, technology, engineering, and math. These four fields all share an emphasis on innovation, problem-solving, and critical thinking. Together, they make up a popular and fast-growing industry.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), "STEM workers use their knowledge of science, technology, engineering, or math to try to understand how the world works and to solve problems." Most STEM workers use computers and other technology in their jobs; they also rely on the scientific method to test various hypotheses and theories.
In this guide, we'll go over the different kinds of STEM topics you can study and why these fields are so important today.
What Are STEM Fields?
STEM comprises the following major areas of study:
- Natural, physical, and life sciences, including medicine
- Computer, electronics, and other technology-related disciplines
- All types of engineering
- Mathematics, or any field involving a heavy application of mathematical principles
Beyond this basic and very broad STEM definition, though, there is no set criteria we can use to determine whether a specific field counts as STEM. Some sources include the social sciences, such as psychology, economics, and anthropology, in their STEM definitions, but most would probably consider these separate categories.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) maintains a list of college STEM majors, which includes math, natural and physical sciences, engineering, and computer-related majors, along with architecture, psychology, and some pharmaceutical and social sciences. Notably, fields like accounting, finance, political science, and medicine are excluded from this list.
ICE’s STEM definition includes architecture, psychology, and some social sciences — but not health and medicine, finance, or political science.
Architecture is a relatively new addition to STEM, only officially recognized by the federal government in 2019. Still, not all groups readily refer to architecture as a STEM field.
The National Science Foundation recognizes that many social sciences, such as anthropology, international relations, law, linguistics, political science, and public policy, fall under the STEM umbrella, but it does not give architecture the STEM designation.
By contrast, ACT, Inc. — the nonprofit group that administers the ACT exam — includes many health and medical fields in its STEM definition. This means that doctors, nurses, and dentists would all be considered STEM professionals.
What Is a STEM Major?
A STEM major is any college major that specializes in a recognized STEM field. Note that some universities may differ in their definitions of what areas of study constitute a STEM major.
Most undergraduate STEM programs culminate in a bachelor of science degree, though others may lead to a bachelor of applied science, a bachelor of engineering, or a bachelor of architecture. STEM students commonly take many of the same courses in fields such as biology, chemistry, calculus, statistics, and engineering, regardless of their major.
Compared with other college majors, STEM degrees tend to be more demanding in terms of the amount of time students spend completing assignments and preparing for classes each week.
List of Popular STEM Majors
Why Is STEM Important?
As our society innovates and technology advances, the need for professionals who understand how these technologies work and who can propose practical solutions continues to grow. The BLS refers to STEM careers as "tomorrow's jobs," emphasizing the importance of this industry.
Today, STEM jobs are in high demand, and many are projected to stay in demand for several years. At the same time, STEM professionals are in short supply, which is why so many higher education institutions, and even the U.S. government, implore students to study STEM.
“[The Trump] administration continues to make strategic investments in STEM education and is working to ensure that all Americans [can] access high-quality STEM education.” Source: — Betsy DeVos, U.S. Secretary of Education Link: More Info
The Department of Education says, "To meet the demands of the dynamic and evolving workforce, building students' skills, content knowledge, and fluency in STEM fields is essential." In 2019, the Trump administration invested nearly $540 million in STEM education; about $100 million of that went toward computer science, one of the fastest-growing STEM fields.
Ensuring students have access to quality STEM education is necessary for keeping the U.S. competitive in the global market. Students around the country are actively encouraged to study STEM through statewide initiatives, many of which encourage women and people of color to enter the predominantly white, male industry.
Many schools also offer incentives to students studying STEM through scholarships and partnerships with their city or state.
Popular STEM Careers
STEM majors can pursue an array of professional paths, with many choosing to work for private businesses and companies, nonprofit organizations, laboratories, colleges, or the military. Some STEM majors work their way up to management positions, while others go on to graduate school to conduct research.
The BLS has identified 100 unique STEM careers, though this is not an exhaustive list. The following table shows some of the most popular STEM careers (as defined by the BLS), as well as each job's median salary and projected employment outlook.
|Job||Median Salary||Projected Employment Growth Rate (2018-28)|
|Computer and Information Systems Managers||
|Physicists and Astronomers||
|Computer Hardware Engineers||
|Information Security Analysts||
|Marine Engineers and Naval Architects||
|Mathematicians and Statisticians||
|Computer Systems Analysts||
|Operations Research Analysts||
|Agricultural and Food Scientists||
|Zoologists and Wildlife Biologists||
4 Reasons to Consider Majoring in a STEM Field
Many STEM jobs require a solid understanding of high-level math concepts. If you're not a fan of math or struggle with making accurate calculations, a non-STEM job — or a STEM career that's not math-heavy — would likely work better for you.
Technology is at the heart of many in-demand jobs. Those who love exploring different technologies, such as computers, cars, and electronics, will likely find a STEM career highly rewarding.
Some people want active jobs that require them to speak with others, move around, travel, and use their bodies. If you would rather have a less social and physically demanding job and have no problem sitting at a computer all day, a STEM job, such as a career in computer science, could be an ideal fit.
Many STEM jobs promise high starting and long-term salaries. If you're hoping to make a substantial income straight out of college, a STEM major can help you achieve that goal.
Additional STEM Resources
BestColleges Women in STEM
This guide provides an in-depth look at the unique challenges women in STEM face, and why more women should consider entering this growing field.
BestColleges Careers in STEM
This guide gives a detailed overview of the various STEM careers you can pursue after college.