Career paths rooted in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) are outpacing many other fields in terms of growth and earning potential. However, the STEM workforce does not reflect the diversity of America’s population. As of 2011, just 26 percent of all STEM professionals were female, and although women of black or Hispanic descent make up 6 and 8 percent of the population respectively, the two groups together make up just 2 percent of all STEM professionals.
The lack of diversity in STEM industries is due in part to gaps in the STEM pipeline. These gaps constitute instances where students veer away from an initial interest in STEM as they move closer to their professional careers. In order to ensure the development of a skilled STEM workforce, it is necessary to fill the holes in the STEM talent pipeline by finding effective ways to support and inspire students as they explore STEM fields.
To fill the jobs that will undoubtedly shape the future of society, we must first establish systems to help tomorrow’s STEM leaders reach their full potential. Here are four potential ways to accomplish that goal:
Encourage Learning and Exploration from a Young Age
A recent study conducted by researchers from Penn State University found that gaps in STEM achievement begin to emerge quite early in children’s academic careers. In examining the academic performance of students as they advanced from kindergarten to eighth grade, the researchers found that students who exhibited an early affinity for STEM topics continued to excel in science and math classes throughout their early school years. On the other hand, those who struggled early on were unlikely to catch up to their peers.
The study also yielded the discovery that math and reading scores are not necessarily indicators of a child’s future STEM achievements. Rather, the kindergartners most likely to excel in science courses later in adolescence were those who possessed a great deal of knowledge about the world around them. Students who, for example, could identify the similarities between trains and airplanes at an early age displayed a higher mastery of STEM concepts as they aged through the school system. This suggests that a student’s ability to ask meaningful questions and answer them with intelligent observations is often one of the strongest factors contributing to STEM engagement and success.
To help students develop an early interest in science, math, and related subjects, adults should encourage the love of exploration and discovery that seems to be an inherent part of childhood. While an early introduction to math, science, and technology is valuable, the aforementioned research suggests that students’ critical thinking skills are far more crucial to their future STEM aptitude. Young students who come to understand the value of learning and truly enjoy the process will be primed for success in fields that prompt them to question and examine the world that they live in.
Create Realistic STEM Curricula
A lack of understanding regarding the universal relevance of STEM topics can often deter students from even considering the possibility of a career in STEM. Therefore, it is crucial that students have the opportunity to engage with science, math, engineering, and technology in a meaningful way that reflects the importance of STEM subjects in the wider world. Hands-on lessons tied to real-world concepts and challenges can help students develop a more realistic understanding of STEM and the potential career paths in those fields, potentially clearing up common misconceptions about STEM.
Corporations and nonprofit organizations can play a significant role in creating STEM lessons that welcome students into the STEM talent pipeline, introducing them to the exciting and impactful careers that can follow post-secondary studies in STEM. For example, General Motors regularly provides Chevrolet cars to adapt as part of student engineering challenges in areas such as carbon emissions reduction and self-driving technology.
However, educators do not need access to automobiles or elaborate resources in order to create engaging STEM lesson plans. Activities such as programming a simple computer game, designing technology prototypes to achieve specific objectives, or taking a field trip to assess the water quality of a nearby stream can all help to bridge the gap between STEM in the classroom and daily life.
Introduce Students to STEM Role Models
Just as students’ engagement with hands-on, relevant STEM assignments can encourage him or her to explore the vast career options in STEM fields, the opportunity to meet successful STEM professionals with whom they have something in common can inspire students to imagine themselves in similar roles.
In a recent study, the Girl Scouts of America discovered that while girls of African-American and Hispanic heritage exhibited a high interest in STEM, a number of barriers have historically dissuaded them from following the STEM pipeline to the professional world. One of the most significant obstacles noted by the organization was the dearth of female role models in STEM careers.
Verbal affirmation that they can achieve any goal they set their minds to can certainly empower students challenge themselves by pursuing STEM. However, it can’t measure up to the experience of learning from and interacting with actual STEM professionals.
When students hear from STEM leaders who share their gender or ethnic background, it provides a valuable opportunity for them to imagine the vast possibilities available to them in the STEM workforce, as well as to shed misconceptions about STEM careers being reserved for certain types of people.
Support Students through College and Beyond
There is a large gulf of time, commitment, and passion between a student’s initial interest in STEM and the decision to pursue a STEM career path. Students must not only be dedicated to furthering their understanding of a given subject, but must also possess confidence that they can succeed in a STEM profession.
In order to provide students with the resources necessary to excel in their postsecondary STEM studies, educators should strive to incorporate college readiness into STEM curriculums. It is important for high school STEM lessons to prepare students for the rigor of college courses, as well as to introduce them to the career prospects made possible by a STEM degree.
The STEM talent pipeline doesn’t end once students declare their college majors. Thus, it is crucial for universities to embrace STEM diversity in an active way. When administrators and faculty within STEM departments make inclusion and empowerment for diverse students a core priority, they can help female students and those from minority backgrounds feel accepted and supported.
Partnerships between universities and institutions dedicated to minority advocacy can help develop a community for diverse STEM students. This will help ensure that they seek out the networking and research opportunities that so often contribute to a successful STEM career. Schools might also consider organizing surveys to assess whether students truly feel that an institution’s stated dedication to diversity matches the culture that is actually present on campus.