STEM | Feature

Helping STEM Take Root

Private and public sector groups are joining the effort to steer students toward tech education and careers.

STEM girl

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It has been nearly five years since President Obama launched Educate to Innovate in an effort to push American students from the middle to the top of the heap in science and math achievement. Through this effort, the federal government, companies, and nonprofits have moved into the K-12 science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) arena in an attempt to broadening the nation’s tech-minded talent pool.

The goals of these groups go beyond just ensuring that today’s kids are exposed to STEM subjects in school. They’re also helping students select careers in growing industries that pay well. According to a recent Mashable article, “The 10 Fastest-Growing Job Titles Are All in Tech,”job-matching service TheLadders says that the fastest-growing jobs (which include DevOps engineer, iOS developer, data scientist and staff accountant) require “deep educational qualifications and specific skills in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.”

To help students get started on the path to these opportunities, organizations like Siemens Foundation, Junior Achievement, Microsoft, Girls Inc and Discovery Education have rolled out ongoing and one-time events focused on stoking interest in STEM. The Siemens “We Can Change the World Challenge,” for example, encourages K-12 students to develop and share environmental solutions. Developed in conjunction with Discovery Education, the effort has attracted more than 80,000 participants who use scientific investigation and Web-based curriculum tools to find solutions to local environmental issues and global energy challenges.

Discovery Education has also worked with Girls Inc. to make STEM resources more available to girls. According to Girls Inc., women employed in STEM fields earn on average 33 percent more than those employed in non-STEM fields, yet women represent only a quarter of all workers in STEM-related jobs. In September 2013, the two organizations provided STEM-related professional development opportunities to educators and mentors and introduced a series of standards-aligned STEM curricula designed around the National Academy of Engineering’s grand engineering challenges. 

Turning Fun Into a Career
Junior Achievement of Utah is involved with a number of STEM-related initiatives. Its JA City Career Exploration Center offers in-class programs that prepare students for future jobs in STEM by teaching problem-solving skills, creativity and “thinking outside of the box,” said Becky Harding, director of the center. Four-hour science camps, for example, give K-12 students hands-on lessons in subjects that they may have typically shied away from. Hardin said, “I can’t tell you how many kids leave here saying that they had no idea science and math were this much fun.”

That “fun” component plays an important role in JA’s STEM efforts, according to Harding, whose team tries to infuse as much enjoyment as possible into the center’s activities and events. Giving students projects that actually relate to the real world — such as building a model of a bridge and then testing it to see how much weight it can hold — helps build confidence levels and breaks down historical barriers and perceptions that may have kept kids from exploring STEM careers.

“We’re supplementing what they’re learning in the classroom without any huge risk on their part,” said Harding, who recently observed an apprehensive 9-year-old taking apart a computer and putting it back together again without much trouble. “There’s a student who isn’t going to be afraid of technology.”

Linda McCracken, president and CEO of Junior Achievement of Northern California in Walnut Creek, said that the organization’s own research shows that in 2013, 46 percent of students were interested in STEM careers — a 15 percent decrease from 2012. In most cases, she says confusion over exactly what a STEM career is can impact a student’s interest level.

“They need to understand their own roles in society and where their job opportunities are,” said McCracken, whose organization has created entry-level math classes to teach young children basic financial practices; middle school programs that encourage kids to explore prospective workplaces; and high school “job shadow” initiatives that give students a chance to interact with current employees. “Many of the shadowing opportunities are prioritized to STEM companies,” said McCracken, “with the goal of exposing students to one of the most demanding and rewarding career paths in today’s economy.”

Planting the Seeds of STEM
With a vested interest in helping to boost the number of students who take an early interest in STEM education and careers, Microsoft has launched an initiative called Technology Education and Literacy in Schools (TEALS), which places computer scientists in high school classrooms across the country, either in person or virtually using Lync. The company also sponsors summer camps designed to grow girls’ interest in STEM-related careers and supports Code.org’s Hour of Code program, which encourages kids to spend an hour of their time learning how to write code.

Sid Espinosa, director of corporate citizenship at Microsoft Silicon Valley, said that the company’s focus on STEM goes beyond promoting careers in computer science. “We want to make sure students get the education they need to get into the fastest-growing jobs, which are all STEM-related and computer-focused in some way,” said Espinosa, who also pointed out that the U.S. continues to fall short in this area. “The bottom line is that we are not doing a good job of prepping our youth for the jobs of the future. As a technology firm, we’re highly concerned about that.”

And, true to the stereotype, tech continues to be something of a boys’ club. According to Espinosa, a high percentage of female students lose interest in math and science in middle school. By high school, most lack any interest in such subjects. “That number continues to dwindle in college, where the number of female STEM graduates is unbelievably low,” he said. To help boost those numbers, Microsoft partners with groups like the Society of Women Engineers and runs programs like DigiGirlz, which gives high school girls the opportunity to learn about careers in technology, connect with Microsoft employees, and participate in hands-on computer and technology workshops.  

According to Espinosa, Microsoft is also working to increase the amount of computer science taught in high school. Currently, Espinosa said, just 5 percent of students have access to these classes. “Some of the wealthier schools offer computer science as an elective, but it rarely counts toward graduation requirements,” he explained, noting that Microsoft has been working to change that at a policy level without impacting current graduation requirements for math.

To other groups looking to help promote STEM across the country, Espinosa said that tackling the problem with little steps in the right direction is the best approach. “There are no quick fixes to these issues, so it’s best to just get started,” he said. “Talk to other organizations, learn what’s going on at the local and state level, and find a way to get involved.”

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