APPROACHING THE FINAL FRONTIER
■ BY L. PAUL VERHAGE
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ATTITUDES TOWARD SCIENCE
Our nation faces many challenges.
One set involves meeting the growing
importance of science, technology,
engineering, and mathematics (STEM)
to the work place. My PhD program
at the University of Kansas investigated
a possible role for BalloonSats, or model
satellites lofted into near space on
weather balloons in STEM education.
Now that I have completed my
dissertation, I will share some of the
results with you.
STEM IN TODAY’S WORLD
I began my investigation by becoming acquainted
with what other people had to say about STEM in today’s
world. Three issues made the greatest impression on me:
the aging science and engineering workforce; the
increasing competition from overseas; and the increasing
importance of STEM in everyday life.
According to the National Science Board’s Science
and Engineering Indicators, more than half of the STEM
workforce is 39 and older. Of those holding college
degrees, more than one quarter of them are 50 and older.
It’s no wonder that we can expect retirements in the
STEM workforce to increase significantly over the next 20
Currently, more adults are entering into the STEM
workforce. Therefore, in time, the number of people
entering these fields should balance those retiring. The
result will be a STEM workforce that stops growing in size
while increasing in average age. We all know cases where
older workers can be more productive, but the evidence
suggests that young people are more responsible for the
14 September 2012
■ FIGURE 1. The
start of my study.
The BalloonSats on
this flight belong to
middle and high
enrolled in my
students will tell me
a second time how
they feel about
most creative research. The need to increase our creative
talent becomes obvious when we consider the next
concern: increased global competition.
Science and engineering have become global
enterprises. Once there was a time that if a student
wanted to get a good science or engineering degree, he
or she would attend school in the US. Now, overseas
schools are granting over one quarter of the STEM-related
Along with increasing STEM education, countries are
also developing their STEM-related industries and
infrastructure. One result is that more overseas companies
can successfully recruit the best and brightest STEM
graduates. United States businesses are competing more
than ever against these overseas companies. This
competition siphons new students away from the STEM
talent pool that our country used to draw upon. As a
result, it is possible that schools and companies in the US