If you want to be rich and powerful, majoring in STEM is a good place to start

Problem-solving requires creative thinking.
Problem-solving requires creative thinking.
Image: AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki
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The standard narrative today is that science, technology, mathematics, and engineering (STEM) education is important because we need more data scientists, engineers, and STEM professionals. But promoting STEM education is critical for another reason: it teaches creative problem solving, which is widely applicable and more necessary than ever today. STEM education is linked to success not only in STEM fields, but in many other disciplines and even among many of the world’s most wealthy and powerful people.

At the heart of mathematics is pattern recognition and the joy of numerical play. What psychologists might call fluid reasoning, or mental power, is what you use when you’re struggling with a problem and don’t know what to do. This includes pattern recognition, abstract reasoning, and problem solving, and can be considered the engine powering numeracy. It is fundamental to so much of human and technological progress, as Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee noted in The Second Machine Age. Math education, then, is really about training people to think creatively within a logical space and to solve problems.

And yet, the majority of people, even many who majored in math, do not end up as mathematicians. They do, however, translate this creative pattern and problem recognition skill into whatever area they end up becoming interested in pursuing, for example, business, journalism, politics, law, or academia. Research on mathematically-talented students followed longitudinally has shown that personal interests may lead many math majors to other productive careers and is beneficial for society. Lou Digioia, executive director of the MATHCOUNTS foundation, told me he routinely meets program alums who attributed the creative problem solving skills they learned as critical to their success in areas well outside mathematics.

In fact, many of the world’s billionaires and powerful people have credited pattern recognition as central to their success. In Plutocrats, Chrystia Freeland discussed this trend as the rise of the data geeks. Carlos Slim was an engineering major who attributed his fortune to a facility with numbers, and Steve Schwartzman said he owed his success to the “ability to see patterns that other people don’t see” in large collections of numbers. In support of these anecdotes, in some of my recent research, apart from business, 29.9% of billionaires and 23.8% of Davos attendees majored in STEM. So if you want to be rich and influential, perhaps majoring in STEM wouldn’t hurt.

Research has also shown that even within independent samples of math-talented students and top STEM graduate students, those who end up earning STEM PhDs, publications, patents, university tenure, and entering such occupations were more likely to have a higher dosage of pre-college STEM educational experiences. Therefore, increasing the intensity and variety of such experiences for students at an early age might increase STEM innovation and may even enhance innovation in variety of areas outside of STEM, such as business.

For example, when Elliot Schrage, former communications director of Google, was asked what field we should encourage our kids to study, he said “statistics, because the ability to understand data would be the most powerful skill in the twenty-first century.” So essentially, the key to the future is the ability to see mathematical or other patterns in data and in our world. This type of thinking is typically found in statistics, mathematics, and more broadly STEM education, where students learn how to creatively solve mathematical and scientific puzzles.

In Building a Better Teacher, Elizabeth Green argued that teaching is a craft, that all teachers can improve, and the way Americans can cure their innumeracy is to first recognize that the traditional approach to teaching math does not seem to work. Yet Paul Lockhart, in A Mathematician’s Lament argued that “you can’t teach teaching”—who we need in the classroom are people who have a joy in mathematical creativity and discovery who also want to teach, not the other way around. As he insightfully points out:

“You learn things by doing them and you remember what matters to you. We have millions of adults wandering around with ‘negative b plus or minus the square root of b squared minus 4ac all over 2a’ in their heads, with absolutely no idea whatsoever what it means. And the reason is that they were never given the chance to discover or invent such things for themselves.”

Lockhart is right that we should teach the joy of discovery in mathematics because at the heart of such teaching is to inspire a love for pattern recognition and creative problem solving: “Math is not about following directions, it’s about making new directions.” Green is right that teachers can and should improve their craft. To solve some of our world’s greatest problems, Bill Gates recommended we need to “attract more of the world’s brightest people into technical fields.” I would add that we should do this not only because the world could use more mathematicians, scientists, or engineers, but also because mathematical and scientific thinking is central to solving so many of our world’s problems outside of these fields.