STEM skills and job success- not what you may think

(Christy Hemphill) #1


This is an interesting article about research conducted by Google into what made their best employees the best. It had been their practice to recruit the best and brightest when it came to technology related skills, but they found that those skills were actually the least important.

I share this because it makes me feel more confident about some of the decisions I’ve made and limitations I face homeschooling. We spend an awful lot of time reading novels and trying to understand other cultures and perspectives and life experiences. Sometimes I don’t feel adequately prepared to give my kids the kinds of learning experiences everyone says they need to compete in the STEM-oriented future. (Not that I’m not trying, I do hang out here a lot and I know way more about current topics in science than I used to.) But maybe all that practice empathizing will serve them well in life.

It also just points out how important it is to bring other areas of intelligence and ways of knowing into science related fields. It’s not just logic and reason and scientific method that matter for success in math/science/technology endeavors.

(Laura) #2

Nice! As someone who went into the humanities, I approve. :wink:
This is also sort of related to why I prefer a literature-based approach to teaching topics like history – it comes from the idea that it’s more important for students to learn why things happened and what their effects were on average people than to learn “data” such as dates and names of periods.

Of course, this makes me think of that dreaded topic of “socialization” too… how “learning in community” can create benefits far beyond just the information studied.

(Ashley Lande) #3

Thanks so much for sharing this, Christy! Really fascinating and makes me feel much better about our choices as well. I’m a bibliophile and the greatest strength of our homeschool is definitely all the books we read aloud. STEM is such a buzzphrase (or buzz-acronym) these days and it makes me anxious because, well, I just don’t do much of it with my kids (though my oldest tends to do a lot on his own through his Tinker Crates, Legos, Plus-Plus and other building materials including what he scavenges from our recycling bin).

I was actually thinking today how I hadn’t been to this discussion board forever and needed to check in! We got totally derailed from school (and life in general, really) in October by my sister’s totally unexpected death. I have felt anxious about being “behind” but this helps remind me that the most important things in life are not, in fact, learned in workbooks and planned activities :slight_smile:

(Peaceful Science) #4

Doesn’t it depend a bit at where you are measuring this? I think Simpson’s paradox is at play. This makes sense among high performing Google engineers, but likely would not hold up beyond that group.

Specifically, very high quantitative/programming skills are required to even become a Google engineer. Once you are in the door, however, verbal, written, and social skill differentiate the good from the great. The same is true in science. For basic competence, one needs very high technical skills, but to really excel you also need phenomenal verbal, written, and social skill.

The lesson here really cuts both ways. We need both the “hard” and “soft” skills. Its never been easier to teach kids programming too. Even if you are a homeschooler. There are online courses for this now. There really is no reason not to teach kids this early now. It is the new type of “literacy” that will be extremely important in their generation.

Of course for those kids that already like math, they cannot and should not neglect their reading and writing skills.

(Christy Hemphill) #5

So sorry to hear about your sister, Ashley. Hugs to you.

(Christy Hemphill) #6

I don’t think anyone’s takeaway is that STEM skills are unnecessary in the modern world. I think the takeaway is that it still matters that you are a well-rounded human being when it comes to being a productive member of society. As someone who works in an organization populated with highly intelligent people who are very proficient in technical skills, but as a group, maybe somewhat behind the curve when it comes to social skills, I am always going to say amen when it is pointed out how necessary these interpersonal skills are. Especially because rarely is there a work situation where a resident genius sits behind closed doors and does his or her thing. We all are expected to work on teams, communicate well in a variety of media, manage relationships, and relate to a general public that is often much less knowledgeable and skilled.

(Peaceful Science) #7

Everyone should agree with that.

You are describing academia quite well here. Once again, everyone should agree.

(Christy Hemphill) #8

This Science article got a lot of attention in education circles a few years ago, because it pointed out the role of literary fiction in developing empathy. STEM skills have been and continue to be a huge emphasis in education, to the point that common core standards and other guidelines have pushed for exchanging fiction for non-fiction in literature courses based on the idea that reading informational texts is more essential to developing the skills needed in a science driven workforce. I think the pendulum is always swinging.

(Peaceful Science) #9

I’m for not being on the pendulum. Both STEM and non-STEM are critically important. One of the challenges for everyone (including homeschoolers and non-homeschoolers) is finding ways to get solid education on both “sides”. Educational environments that do well in one area do not always do well in another. This is not a knock on homeschooling to be clear, because it’s a challenge wherever kids are learning.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #10

When my wife was teaching art, she told me about a program ‘STEAM’ (which is STEM but with Art thrown in there too) which seemed fitting enough. Of course she has a masters degree in Art Therapy so … just like with the STEM folks, when what you have is a hammer …

I’ll echo the excitement above to get the humanities their due. The STEM fields already have theirs, so to elevate the humanities is not to demean science, math, etc … just like saying that ‘black lives matter’ in no way implies that non-black lives don’t.

Engineers who were only allowed one token humanities course in their otherwise crowded engineering curricula often suffer from humanities envy later and strive to play catch-up in that regard. I’m one of those. BTW … my choice for my token ‘humanities course’? Poetry / story writing. Don’t test me on what I learned but I do remember some of the good experiences I got from that course.

I liked the line (Jodie Foster in “Contact”, I believe) where she, looking out her view window in awe exclaimed that they should not have sent a scientist, but a poet instead.

(Christy Hemphill) #11

Maybe my overall uneasiness and need for validation is due to the fact that I think the most popular homeschool programs/gurus are kind of STEM deficient. They are written by history and literature lovers and math and science are subjects you are just supposed to outsource to adequate textbooks so you can check them off. Or you are supposed to figure out a way to make science essentially part of history and literature. I saw people all excited about Joy Hakim’s Story of Science series because the feeling was, great, now we can just read what is basically a history book and call science dealt with. Now, I really like that series and we read it (as part of history), but it is not a science course. We’ve read a lot of biographies of scientists, but they don’t teach you how to manipulate equations, or write things in scientific notation, or read graphs. When you add in the fact that I consider most of the science curricula marketed to homeschoolers as suspect because they are either YEC or “avoid controversy” materials, I feel even more unprepared to do a good job.

My main motivation in posting this was so that we can all take a deep breath and stop beating ourselves up and losing sleep over how we are probably screwing up our children’s education. Some of the men reading may not quite get this, but just remember that women are not socialized to assume they are doing an awesome job and our confidence is fragile. (Anyone else read The Confidence Code? Great book.) The fact that anyone is here in the first place shows they are prioritizing their kids’ STEM education.

I think it is amazing how much kids can just pick up without direct instruction, and I think maybe we need to teach less, and just be more intentional about providing opportunities. Doing dishes last night, my ten year old son told me all about exactly how he solved the problem he was having with the “random terrain generator” he made in Scratch and how now all his “lake” tiles stick together the way he envisioned. Whatever that means. I understood about a quarter of what he was talking about. Between Scratch and Minecraft modding and the social networking aspects of those two platforms, my kids have taken a ton of initiative to learn how to do stuff I can’t teach them. And they can learn how to do almost anything they want on YouTube.

(Charlene Albano) #12

This is great information! I hope it Will be viewed as fair to temper it with the thought that hard skills get a person the job, soft help the person KEEP the job and advance within the job.
What I intend to take away from reading it is that I will start a study on these skills by looking for supporting verses/passages in the Bible to help me teach them to my children. Perhaps even seek out opportunities for developing and practing such skills.
Thanks for sharing; very encouraging!

(Mervin Bitikofer) #13

At a recent educators’ convention, Ken Sande (speaker on peace making and conflict resolution) was our keynote speaker. What he said fits in nicely with some of the observations above. He said many kids today are deficient in “EI” (Emotional intelligence) in part because our electronic habits are making jobs less communal – cubicals and face-to-face chats at the water cooler seem to be on the way out as we interact electronically more and more even if in the same building or large room. And partly because our education system doesn’t teach this stuff despite the fact that knowing how to listen and empathize will probably serve you and your work community far better than one extra STEM badge on you resume. (All my words, not his – but he said things to that effect.) My only problem is that engineering types can still treat this as just one more skill to check off their list. Eye contact – check. smiling and nodding – check. Now I’m a ‘good listener’ – check!? Of course he wasn’t advocating such a formulaic approach. But … some of us (I won’t mention any genders) tend to take it that direction too often.

(Laura) #14

I am a bit uneasy about the whole math/science thing too, especially since (from what I’ve seen) there is some evidence of a homeschooler “math gap,” especially for girls, which I think was true for me. The temptation to “overcompensate” can be very real.

(Peaceful Science) #15

I agree. Believe it or not, it was on my mind as I tread into this thread. I’m sure you all are doing the best you can for your kids, and I did not want to undermine anyone’s confidence here.

It is easier now then in the past. There are just so many online courses designed for kids on STEM. Programming is just one of them.

And I also do want to wholeheartedly endorse @Christy’s earlier statements. I loved STEM in K-12, however, I found out when I got to grad school that writing was MUCH more important in science than I was led to believe. Now, running a research group, the soft skills are the real differentiator.

(Chris Falter) #16

And your skill in writing has been useful to so many right here in this forum, Joshua!


Just to build on what @Swamidass has said, and include my career experiences on the technical side of the biological sciences. I have actually trained a fair number of undergrads in lab focused summer programs or internships, so I have a little bit of experience seeing potential gaps between education and application.

There are many skills that are needed, but there is one skill that is absolutely required in the sciences, and that is confidence in basic math. If you can’t do something as simple as calculate the molarity of a solution or back calculate dilution factors, then you just won’t be able to make it in the sciences. I have seen at least two students who couldn’t do the basic math, and it prevented them from getting anything valuable from their internships. You also need to the ability to learn more advanced math, like statistics or non-linear regressions. I really think that ability comes from gaining confidence through good study habits and isn’t something innate or something you are gifted with. One way that I think homeschool students could get a firmer grasp on basic math is to learn how to use Excel to analyze data sets and make graphs. This skill set is very useful in the sciences, and I think it helps students to get a firmer grasp on the theory of applied math instead of focusing just on specific problems.

Communication skills are also extremely important, and I think one ways of improving those skills is to teach others. In my own work I have to present data and analyses to the PhD’s I work for. I have to help them understand the methods I used, the basic concepts of lab techniques, why I chose those methods, and properly communicate what conclusions the data points to and why. I know the data, methods, and concepts inside and out, but the hard part is getting other people to understand them. That is where communication skills come in. In a homeschool setting I would consider having students learn a topic and then try to present that material to people who may not understand that material. After a lot of practice you learn how to boil a topic down to what is important, and how to clearly present those ideas. Learning PowerPoint is also a great skill to have, and something homeschoolers could have a blast doing. Standing in front of an audience also gives students confidence that they can later call upon in their professional careers.

The last skill I would include is critical analysis. What does a graph say, and why? What is missing from a certain study? One of the skills that good scientists have is the ability to understand what the data is saying and what the data can’t say. To use a really simple example . . . 100 people with headaches took Drug X and 30% of those headaches went away. What can you say from that data? Actually, not much. How many headaches would go away without taking any drugs? Does taking a pill produce a psychosomatic reaction which alleviates the headache (i.e. placebo effect)? This type of skill set is vitally important in science as well as many other trades such as car repair or engineering.

I would say that 95% of the things I needed to know in my current job in the biological sciences I had to learn on the job. You have to learn how to learn, and gain the confidence needed to tackle problems that you currently don’t understand. I have seen students who freeze up when faced with failure, and I have always found that to be rather frustrating since a large part of science is failing at something over and over until you succeed. As Edison said, he learned 1,000 ways not to make a light bulb. It isn’t about succeeding right away, but being confident in your knowledge once you get there.

Anyway, those are my observations from my 20 years of experience in the sciences, albeit outside of academics. I hope they can be of some help.


I really suspect that coding will become a less required skill in the future. That’s because I think we’re rapidly hitting the point where interfaces and AI systems will be easily able to generate useful programs from human requests. We seldom code in assembly and even ‘close-to-the-hardware’ C is represents a decreasingly smaller percentage of all coding jobs. Basic logic skills, math and procedural thinking will always be necessary but most hands-on programming jobs may eventually go the way of the punch-card operator.

(Christy Hemphill) #19

Thanks for these detailed suggestions @T_aquaticus . My husband will be really happy about the importance you see in Excel. I sometimes think he loves Excel more than me. :wink:

I have a math education question maybe one of you educators or science professionals could help with (@Mervin_Bitikofer @Swamidass @Argon feel free to chime in). I have one child who is somewhat precocious in math. He is in fifth grade and is using Art of Problem Solving Algebra along with his seventh grade sister. The plan is to do half the textbook this year and half next and also use the AoPS Intro to Counting and Probability course. That seems to be a good fit. However, after school hours he spends a lot of time thinking about math and looking things up on the internet. He really likes programming and theoretical stuff. For example, my brother explained the unit circle to him when he was nine and since then he has taught himself the basics of trig so he can do what he wants with trig functions in the programs he builds in Scratch. My father-in-law handed him a book on fractal geometry he had laying around (On my husband’s side of the family, they are all hardcore nerds.), and he read the whole thing in the three days we were visiting. That’s the kind of kid he is. I encouraged him to be more strategic instead of just watching random explanations and reading Wikipedia articles on things that pique his curiosity, so now he is working through a Coursera Intro to Logic class and has a Fun with Prime Numbers course on picked out for when he is through with the Coursera course.

But I am really at a loss as to how to best channel his interest or abilities. I have read some articles at Art of Problem Solving about what to do with math gifted kids, and they advise not letting them work too far above “grade level” in the traditional math progression. In other words they think kids should be getting to calculus in later high school, not cruising through math books just because they can. It’s pretty much their philosophy to encourage kids to delve into harder, more creative problems and applications instead of moving through traditional coursework at a fast rate to get to college level math. Do you all think that is good advice? What topics or electives should I be suggesting my son pursue in his free time? I wish he had the opportunity to be in a robotics club or math team competitions, but since we live in rural Mexico, that isn’t an option. Are there any online communities/clubs that do that kind of thing? Anyway, I’d appreciate any thoughts or guidance that pops into anyone’s head. Or if you were a math geek as a kid and there is something you always wished your mom understood or let you do, please do share.


I think it is impossible to say one way or another, but it is safer to go slowly and master each phase than speeding through material without mastering any of it.[quote=“Christy, post:19, topic:37561”]
What topics or electives should I be suggesting my son pursue in his free time? I wish he had the opportunity to be in a robotics club or math team competitions, but since we live in rural Mexico, that isn’t an option.

I deeply regret not nurturing my artistic side during my formative years. I would suggest pottery, drawing, painting, sculpting, singing, musical instruments, or anything along those lines. If your son is anything like myself he will stink at the arts, but the goal should always be to enjoy stinking at it and aim for mediocrity. My personal favorite was pottery, and it could offer a way of learning local methods such as choices of local clay and historical kilning methods.