csx engineBy Peter Galuszka

When it comes to education, a constant mantra chanted by the Virginia chattering class is “STEM.”

How many times have you heard that our students are far behind in “STEM” (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics)? We have to drain funding from more traditional areas of study (that actually might make them better human beings like literature, art or history) and give it to STEM. The two types of popular STEM are, of course, computer science (we’re all “illiterate” claims one journalist-turned computer science advocate) and biotechnology.

But how important is STEM, really? And if Virginia joins the STEM parade and puts all of its eggs in that basket, will the jobs actually be there?

The fact of the matter is that we don’t know what jobs will be around in the future and like the famous generals planning for the last war, we may be stuck planning for the digital explosion of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs that is like, so, 25 years ago.

To get an idea where markets may be, look at today’s news. Canadian Pacific is making a play for CSX railroad (headquartered in Richmond not that long ago) because of the unexpected explosion in fracked oil.

CP handles a lot of freight in the western part of Canada and U.S. where some of the most impressive new fracked shale oil are, namely the Bakken fields of North Dakota and Alberta. CP wants access to eastern U.S. refineries and transshipping points, such as a transloading spot at the mouth of the York River. CSX is stuck with dirty old coal where production and exports are down, although it has an extensive rail network in the Old Dominion.

The combined market value of the two firms is $62 billion — a far bigger potential deal than the $26 billion Warren Buffett paid for Burlington Northern Sante Fe in 2010. There are problems, to be sure. CSX isn’t interested and the Surface Transportation Board, a federal entity, nixed a matchup of Canadian National and Burlington a little while back.

But this isn’t really the point. The point is that the Old Steel Rail pushed by new sources of oil and to some extent natural gas has surprisingly turned domestic economics upside down. Many of the new oil fields are in places where there are not pipelines, so rail is the only answer. In 2008, according to the Wall Street Journal, six or so American railroads generated $25.8 million in hauling crude oil. Last year that shot up to $2.15 billion.

So, what does that mean for students? A lot actually, especially when we blather on about old-style STEM that might have them inventing yet another cell-phone app that has a half-life of maybe a few months. Doesn’t matter, every Virginia legislator, economic development official and education advocate seems to be hypnotized by the STEM genie.

A piece I just did for the up-and-coming Chesterfield Observer on vocation education in that county:

“The recent push to educate students in so-called STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) may be case in point. The goal is to churn out bright, highly trained young people able to compete in the global economy with their counterparts from foreign lands.

“A subset of this area of concentration is computer science, which goes beyond knowing the basics and gets into the nitty-gritty of learning code and writing computer languages. By some accounts, such skills will be necessary to fill more than 2 million jobs expected to become open in the state by 2020.

“Critics question, however, if overspecialization in technology at earlier ages prevents students from exploring studies such as art and literature that might make them better rounded adults. And, specialization often assumes that jobs will be waiting after high school and college when they might not be.

“Peter Cappelli, a professor of management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, has written about such problems of academic overspecialization in national publications such as The Wall Street Journal. He recently responded to questions from the Chesterfield Observer via email.”

“Not many science grads are getting jobs in their field,” Cappelli says. “The evidence suggests that about two thirds of the IT (information technology) grads got jobs in their fields, about the same for engineering. There is no guarantee in those fields. It’s all about hitting the appropriate subspecialty that happens to be hot. There are still lots of unemployed engineers and IT people.”

So there you have it. In my opinion, the over-emphasis on STEM training has the unfortunate effect of producing young adults who have one goal in mind – getting a job and making money, not helping humankind. And, if you insist on STEM, why not branch into something where there are actually jobs namely petroleum engineering, geology and transportation engineering.

I’ll leave the dangers of added petroleum cargoes in trains to another post.

Share this article


(comments below)


(comments below)


20 responses to “Why We’re Being Railroaded On “STEM””

  1. LifeOnTheFallLine Avatar

    Let me start by saying that I’m completely on board with the idea that we lose something when we narrow the focus of education (to STEM, to SOL focus, to whatever) instead of following a classical model of education (music, literature, sciences, history), but I’m not sure I grasp what you want.

    Do you want a return to the classical model? Are you fine with STEM but unhappy with what you see as an emphasis on specific subsets? Why do you think the extraction of a finite resource has more long term stability than digital creation? If you think shipping petroleum is so dangerous how does encouraging people to educate themselves to do aid humankind?

  2. it’s not STEM per se. It’s the KIND of thinking that is associated with STEM – namely being able to use your education to formulate solutions to real world problems….

    We no longer need warehouse labor – instead we need someone who knows how to operate a logistical inventory network system … we don’t see sales associates – we need folks who know how to use a computer to check inventory or put a security system in a home or install/repair a furnace that has digital controls.. or devise a way to adapt a drone to look for lost kids, seniors… or develop a GPS system to sort a list of addresses to visit in sort order .. or a school bus system that can reorder when a driver or a bus go down.

    Employers no longer want to teach folks how to deal with technology to get the job done. They want the person to be able to read a tech manual and start using the system – perhaps even show the employer some things the employer did not see.

    we no longer need people who sit at desks functioning as gate-keepers to information or stand at a machine.. moving a lever … etc.

    Europe and Asia clean our clocks on the aspect of education – where a student can take what they learned – and apply it to solve a problem.

    we memorize for tests.. they have to demonstrate competency in a task…

    so it’s not STEM.. STEM is just another sound-bite perspective of something deeper and more comprehensive – and all the more reason to be concerned about what our kids actually know when they leave high school.

    I have a newspaper friend. Used t be.. all they had to do was write and turn it over the editor. No more. They have to understand a dozen different software programs to get an article formatted for inclusion in the print and electronic media… they have to know how to capture stuff on smart phones and/or submit stories on smartphones for breaking news… etc.

    it’s much more than “journalism” now days… If you don’t know how to get your story to your editor from the field faster than your competitors – it makes you a second or 3rd tier employee who cannot do the whole job.

  3. When I was teaching at the University of Delaware, I advised students to take one of the four basic engineering paths: Civil, Electrical, Mechanical, or Chemical. The skills learned will apply to many fields. Those who took aerospace engineering, nuclear engineering, etc., have little job flexibility. STEM is the same. I tutor many public-high-school students in math. Much of what they learn sounds sophisticated but is useless. They need the basics: arithmetic, algebra, geometry, trig, calculus. They especially need household math. Much of science and engineering seems to be show-case material. With a few exceptions, the students do not have the skills for real research or real engineering. I have judged science fairs where some projects involved assembling robot kits. They do need basic physics, chemistry, and biology, but of the everyday variety, not of a research laboratory with electron microscopes. Students will respond better to practical STEM. Practical STEM inspired me to be an engineer.

    1. I pretty much agree with Fred.

      You don’t need to be pointed at a specific STEM occupation but you should have a robust background in subjects that serve you well in melding non-technology fields – with technology which is the way that everything is going these days.

      there are fewer and fewer jobs where you can have a career that are untouched by technology.

      and there are myriad ways that jobs have changed and are continuing to change due to technology which requires a person to not only well grounded in language and math – but in using them to understand concepts – to use that knowledge to be effective in a given field.

      Now days, even a foot soldier in the military is technology-laden.. even construction and factories are transformed into technology-driven occupations.

      Pretty shocking, 71% do not qualify for the armed services any more:

      Recruits’ Ineligibility Tests the Military: More Than Two-Thirds of American Youth Wouldn’t Qualify for Service, Pentagon Says


      25% fail the aptitude portion alone.

    2. TooManyTaxes Avatar

      One of my nephews is a 2011 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy in economics. But the Navy has made him chief engineer for operating the nuclear power in the sub. Of course, he had quite a bit of post-graduate training from the Navy. I guess the ability to think, learn and solve problems is quite transferrable. Or, at least, the Defense Department thinks so.

      1. well.. they let the Chief Petty Officers show him the ropes and be the officer in charge!


        1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

          Larry, quite likely! 🙂

  4. “In my opinion, the over-emphasis on STEM training has the unfortunate effect of producing young adults who have one goal in mind – getting a job and making money, not helping humankind.”

    Hah! Hah! That’s what the world needs — more idealistic English majors-turned-Peace Corps volunteers to tell African peasants how to grow casava root!

    1. I have to agree with Jim. People who are not involved in economically productive endeavors are burdens to taxpayer whether it’s entitlements or govt-paid jobs.

      We do need government jobs – whether it be CDC or the military or the EPA or the IRS or the thousands of Colleges and K-12 schools but at some point – we have to have people actually involved in producing the stuff that actually pays the taxes…

      almost half our economy right now is pegged to taxes collected to pay for jobs or entitlements…

      we have to compete with the rest of the world in the economy – to produce things – services and goods … or we become like China or other countries where the govt IS the economy..

      don’t get me wrong – I believe in our institutions unlike the anti-govt fervor affecting many in our country today. I believe in public education and yes I believe in many other tax-funded institutions…

      we cannot remain a major player in the world economy if more and more of us work for the govt or govt-funded institutions like higher education and don’t value education of STEM quality. Our competitors in the rest of the world are going to beat us .. clean our clock if we continue to drag our butts on STEM type education.

      we take so much for granted.. these days.. but we could well end up a second tier country if we continue to believe we don’t need to excel in commerce and industry.

  5. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    African peasants? My.How white and Colonial. Maybe they do have an infrastructure.

  6. Peter jumps the shark here.

    “We have to drain funding from more traditional areas of study (that actually might make them better human beings like literature, art or history) and give it to STEM.”

    Wow! You become a better human being by studying literature, art or history? Hitler was an aspiring artist, wasn’t he?

    Also, “more traditional areas of study”? Math is some new fangled johnny come lately of a subject? Being a stupid STEM guy and generally bad human being I have to ask, “When was Euclid born?” Sometime in the late 1970s? I think math is a pretty traditional subject. Math is also pure logic. It teaches you how to think in ways no other subject can match. There are good reasons to study liberal arts but math has a place beyond becoming a mathematician.

    I don’t know what it means to study technology (the T in STEM). I can’t recall meeting anybody with a degree in technology.

    Let’s move on to S for science. Really? You object to people studying science? Like all of those infallible climate scientists who have convinced you that the Earth is rapidly warming because of human activity? You may have hit upon a good idea for the Republicans – a poll of art historians regarding global warming.

    That leaves E for engineering. You fly in the planes designed by literature majors, I’ll stick to the ones designed by aerospace engineers.

    “In my opinion, the over-emphasis on STEM training has the unfortunate effect of producing young adults who have one goal in mind – getting a job and making money, not helping humankind.”

    Yes, good point. Jonas Salk did nothing to help humankind.

    There was only one sentence in your side trip into railroad economics that I understood in the context of STEM education – “But this isn’t really the point.”

    Finally, I see no basis for your claim that teaching STEM somehow removes money from liberal arts curricula. Does teaching art history remove money from teaching math too?

  7. LifeOnTheFallLine Avatar

    LOLOLOL Hitler. You know who else studied science? Josef Mengele, Kurt Blome, Claus Schilling, Sigmund Rascher, Hubertus Strughold, and Wernher von Braun. So I guess that’s what? One against artists and six against scientists?

    And speaking of Jonas Salk, you know who else studies medicine…CHE GUEVARA.

    And engineering? Why, our good friend Mahmoud Ahmadenijad is a civil engineer. So was notably terrible president Herbert Hoover. (And as a point of pride, so was Virginian Hardy Cross, whose distribution method is still taught in universities).

    Bro, do you even technology? https://www.odu.edu/engtech

    But, ODU is a podunk school hanging on to the edge of the world, certainly no actual university would make that a central part of their study or name…


    1. LOFL – how do you get multiple links in the post without sending it to moderation?

      1. LifeOnTheFallLine Avatar

        They go to moderation and I cheerfully wait!

    2. My son has a third grade math textbook he isn’t using. Perhaps he’ll lend it to you. It might help the logic of your arguments.

      I never claimed that studying STEM would make you a better human being. It was Peter who cited art, literature and history as examples of study areas that help make better human beings. The fact that I refute that argument in no way indicates that I endorse the argument that studying STEM makes you a better human being. I don’t think that what you study has any bearing whatsoever on what type of human being you’ll become. Your counter-argument attempts to refute a claim I never made.

      Your next point is even more hapless.

      “Bro, do you even technology?”

      Perhaps you should also borrow my son’s third grade English text as well. I can understand a typo or a small grammatical error in a blog comment but what does that sentence mean? First, I am not your brother. If I were your brother I would have found a way to “educate” you to the point that you wouldn’t make so many simple minded comments in public. If you’d like to talk to my actual brother about that I’d be happy to connect you. As an aside he holds a PhD in Physics.

      Your link illustrates that you found a degree with technology in the title. Congratulations. As I said, I never met anybody with a degree in technology. Until I meet somebody from ODU with a degree in technology that will still be true.

      You then list three universities with technology in their names. Again, congratulations. I never claimed that there was no such thing as technology. As a long time Chief Technology Officer for a multi-billion dollar tech company that would have been pretty odd for me to say. What I wrote was that I don’t know what it means to say you study technology. Most people study engineering, math or science and then work in the technology industry. Adding Technology to Science, Engineering and Math seems redundant.

      If you get bored, here is some light reading for you:

      Distributed development environment for building internet applications by developers at remote locations.
      United States US 20040117759
      Issued January 11, 2011

      System and method for performing threat assessment using situational awareness
      United States 20120030767
      Issued December 10, 2013

      Perhaps you would be so kind as to refer me to the list of patents you have been awarded.

      1. LifeOnTheFallLine Avatar

        Peter’s original point: Studying the humanities MIGHT make you a better person.
        Your rebuttal: LOL Hitler, so you’re wrong, it doesn’t matter what you study. Absolutism for the win!
        The underlying flaw: Peter’s original point relied on a probabilistic interpretation: studying the humanities PROBABLY makes you a better person. If we look at Germans prominently involved in Holocaust activities we’re already at humanities (Hitler the artist) as 1 to the collection of scientists 6. So an artist has a 1/7 chance of becoming a murderous Nazi compared to the scientists at 6/7. So using the LOL Hitler example Peter’s point still stands.

        “I can understand a typo or a small grammatical error in a blog comment but what does that sentence mean?”

        It’s a variant on this here: http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/do-you-even-lift

        “First, I am not your brother.”

        No, really, get out of town? What does saying this gain for you? I mean, I get that you probably don’t view yourself as a real Southerner, so the Christian/blue collar culture of addressing men as your brother is something you either missed out on or actively rejected, but dropping it in here is so needless.

        Oh, wait…

        “If I were your brother I would have found a way to ‘educate’ you to the point that you wouldn’t make so many simple minded comments in public”

        I see, you made an implicit rejection of our shared brotherhood of humanity so you could lob an insult at me. A grown man with at least two patents under his belt and the best you can do is call me a simpleton. Oh, and I guess say you would “educate” me, whatever that was supposed to mean. Would you care to make that clearer?

        “As an aside he holds a PhD in Physics.”

        This is laughably irrelevant.

        “As I said, I never met anybody with a degree in technology.”

        So, this leaves us with two options. One, either you original statement was meant as it’s commonly used in rhetoric to be understood as “This is something that is a highly unlikely thing bordering on the vastly improbable” and when you got called out for it you decided that making a pedantic argument was the best way to save face.

        Or two, you are a painfully literal person and you meant “I don’t know what it means to study technology. I can’t recall meeting anybody with a degree in technology.” That would mean your imagination is so limited that because you’ve never met someone with a degree in technology you cannot begin to fathom what that would look like, even though are prominent institutions with the study thereof in their names, charters and mission statements.

        “Perhaps you would be so kind as to refer me to the list of patents you have been awarded.”

        Is this baseless appeal to authority supposed to mean something?

        Oh, one more thing I forgot to address before.

        “Finally, I see no basis for your claim that teaching STEM somehow removes money from liberal arts curricula.”

        Despite the “tax and spend” rhetoric that gets passed around, school budgets are, in fact, finite, and when I was a journalist I sat in on multiple school board meetings where they had to debate things like “Are we going to pay to fix the bus, get a new bus or do repairs to a school?” If a mandate is put down that STEM is to be prioritized then when budget comes around and it’s “we can either upgrade the computers and facilities used for math and science or we can provide kids with musical instruments and art tools” it’s a safe bet that money is going to whatever furthers science and math.

  8. we DO pay people who build, maintain and further expand the foundations of a productive society

    A researcher may send most of their life – and their contribution is one thing but it benefits millions, billions of people.

    it’s a valid use of taxes.

    but you still have the problem of where the taxes come from and who engages in that activity – so that the researched can be funded – from the direct efforts of the worker and entrepreneurs.

    Productivity is what pays for these other fundamental needs.

    but we cannot have a society where everyone is a tax-funded researcher…history or arts person.


  9. This is a very sensitive topic for me, as I have spent a career as a science-trained engineer in the industrial sector. Now I find my life’s work, in some quarters, condemned as criminally unethical destruction of the planet, due to climate change. Under these circumstances of political unacceptability, we can expect fewer talented students (in America) to pursue science and engineering careers. The “good” news is this political snubbing of certain manufacturing sectors is probably a uniquely American attitude, we’ll still be able to import scientists, engineers and manufactured goods from other countries who do not have these attitudes.

    1. we seem to have difficulty articulating the purpose and value of a science-based education vice liberal arts or something else.

      I do not denigrate the value of liberal arts – but even STEM applies to non-engineering disciplines these days because the value of each job or occupation is keyed to productivity and productivity comes from STEM-like thinking.

      the idea that each of us, no matter what we do, would strive to produce more and better – higher quality work products.

      The jobs that don’t have a more, better, quality component do exist but most people who do those jobs don’t think highly of them.. even themselves.

      I have a simple premise and I realize it might be optimistic but I believe that most of us want to do something that we ourselves consider useful and valuable – even if we do it for free or volunteer.. there a feeling of purpose that we need ….

      in the modern world – as more and more “work” is done by automation and computers, software… I would surmise that few of us want to compete with a computer but instead still want to find the things that we can do that are valuable to others and right now the most valuable thing for most employers is folks who can utilize their skills and education – to – solve problems.. to make things work better, quicker…etc..

      sure.. some folks don’t march to that drummer … but I think many if not most of us do.

  10. this might be useful to folks:

    ” “People do a bad job of distinguishing computer science as a science from software engineering” ”


    The idea came from the fact that there are very few computer science graduates in the U.S. each year, maybe 16,000 or 17,000, and most are from the Northeast. But if you go to Stanford for computer science, there’s a 45% chance that you’ll join a startup. With the Ivy League, it’s just 15%-17%.

    What do you look for in young hires?

    Zappacosta: We look for a quiet ambition, we don’t want you to wear it on your sleeve, but we want you to be intrinsically motivated and deeply curious, the type who asks questions to build your knowledge.

    Zappacosta: An engineer is a role where it’s easier to test true ability. We hired a guy out of Appalachian State. Who knows why he went there, and if we just saw that, we might have passed. But he did our coding challenge, killed it, and he got an offer. Engineering is more meritocratic than a bank or finance.

    They’re mission driven, not money-driven, so their sophistication has impressed me.

    What would you like to un-teach C.S. majors in the U.S. today?

    Zappacosta: I think people do a bad job of distinguishing computer science as a science from software engineering that you do in the day-to-day. Students love algorithms, and that’s great, they’ll come into play. But there’s a ton of work you’ll do with systems so that the algorithm works for the actual product.


Leave a Reply