Top 4 STEM Career Fields (Plus Some You May Have Not Considered)

Marissa Alonzo
Posted by on May 23, 2018  at 

 

By Jamie LaGesse

As teachers, we often struggle with student buy-in and engagement. We’ve heard the question many times: “why do I need to learn this?”

As STEM teachers, we could answer with any of the following: “job stability”, “economic growth,” or “for your future.” All of these responses are true, but none will resonate quite as much as this one: MONEY.

Employees in STEM fields earn 29% more than non-STEM workers, according to a 2017 report by the Office of the Chief Economist from the U.S. Department of Commerce. In fact, the same report points out employees holding a STEM degree earn 12% more money than those without a STEM degree, even with the exact same job and experience levels. The average yearly salary for a STEM job in 2017 was more than $87,500 compared to $45,700 for non-STEM jobs, says the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

STEM careers are on the rise, with more than 9 million employees nationwide and counting. However, education is key to becoming a part of this growing group and reaping the benefits of higher salaries and job security. Almost 75% of STEM employees have a college degree, compared to 34% in non-STEM careers, the report said.

That makes our jobs as educators even more pressing when it comes to aligning our instructional practices to real-world lessons and guiding our students toward college. Let’s take a look at the four most prevalent STEM career fields in the U.S.

Computers and Information Systems

Nearly half of all STEM jobs (46% to be exact) are in a computer-related field, says Bureau of Labor Statistics. Applications software developers were by far the largest segment of this career field, with nearly 750,000 employees. (I guess there really could be an app for everything!) Computer user support specialists and computer systems analysts came in second, with a half million jobs each. The average salary for this field: $77,570.

Classroom Connections

  • Why not have your students work in cooperative learning groups to brainstorm possible apps based on problems or perceived needs? There are several free websites that will enable them to create prototypes, such as Moqups. They can even draw up a business plan or create an advertising campaign for the app.
  • If you want to expose them to the role of computer user support specialist, a teaching best practice would be to give them scenarios for types of computer support and have them role play in class to problem solve.
  • As for computer systems analysts, why not have them go to a website and brainstorm ways to make it function more efficiently? Perhaps figure out what kinds of data are used in different industries and why.

Wholesale/Manufacturing Sales

Selling technical and scientific products—via wholesale or manufacturing— is the most prevalent STEM career field in the U.S. not related to computers (although you could be selling them!) There were more than 334,000 positions in this field as of last year. A STEM background is key for this type of career, where thorough product knowledge and the ability to explain specific details in easily comprehensible terms are skills employers are more than willing to pay for: the average salary in 2017 was about $92,000.

Classroom Connections

  • Mechanical engineers deal with everything from machinery to automobiles. Why not have students design a prototype for a piece of machinery and explain how and why it is useful in a certain industry or how about having them explain how a piece of machinery revolutionized an industry?
  • Civil engineers design structures and focus on the integrity of the build. Anyone want to build a spaghetti bridge and test its weight limits or construct a cradle designed to protect an egg when dropped from a height of several feet?
  • Petroleum engineers design plans to extract oil reserves from the Earth via safe and sustainable drilling and extraction methods. Why not have students research oil reserves throughout the world and the different techniques necessary to extract oil? You could even throw in some history by having them research the Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster or the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico to research the ecological, health, and political ramifications of oil extraction/exportation gone wrong.

Engineering 

Mechanical and civil engineers are also in high demand, totaling 250,000 jobs each in 2017, says the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Degree-holders in these growing career fields earned an average yearly salary more than $91,000 last year. However, petroleum engineers rake in the highest yearly salary at nearly $150,000— about $100,000 more per year than the average national yearly salary.

Classroom Connections 

  • Mechanical engineers deal with everything from machinery to automobiles. Why not have students design a prototype for a piece of machinery and explain how and why it is useful in a certain industry? Perhaps, have them explain how a piece of machinery revolutionized an industry (e.g. the invention of the cotton gin, printing press, wheelbarrow, etc.)
  • Civil engineers design structures and focus on the integrity of the build. Anyone want to build a spaghetti bridge and test its weight limits or construct a cradle designed to protect an egg when dropped from a height of several feet?
  • Petroleum engineers design plans to extract oil reserves from the earth via safe and sustainable drilling and extraction methods. Why not have students research oil reserves throughout the world and the different techniques necessary to extract the oil? You could even throw in some history by having them research the Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster or the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico to research the ecological, health, and political ramifications of oil extraction and exportation gone wrong.

Physical and Life Sciences

Physical and life sciences is a broad category with lots of jobs that are not necessarily considered STEM careers. However, this is also the area where those with STEM degrees tend to have the most job opportunities. In addition, this field is the most educated of the STEM fields, with 40% of employees holding graduate degrees.

Classroom Connections

  • Physical sciences deal with natural but nonliving things. Check out these project ideas from education.com to have your students explore the area of study.
  • Life sciences are centered on living organisms. Why not have students complete one of these projects from the site mentioned above?

These are the four largest career fields for STEM, but not the only options available for students. For instance, did you know:

  • A mathematician is the fastest growing STEM occupation, and many degree-holders go on to teach at colleges and universities.
  • Many of the branches of the military are making STEM connections to their jobs, such as the National Guard, and they will often fund education.
  • A teacher is also one of the most diverse STEM occupations, with many different degrees and experiences. The NISE teacher certification program is geared toward instructors who want to become more active and activate STEM knowledge.

Whether your students know they are STEM-inclined or not, it’s our jobs as educators to help them see the connections to all career fields and give them the best possible advantages. What better way than exposing them to actual STEM jobs via assignments based on real-life scenarios? These are the 21st Century skills we continually emphasize at the National Institute for STEM Education and we hope you can join us on this journey.