The areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics provide an ever-growing number of professional opportunities. As many as 20 percent of all American jobs fall within STEM sectors, and while job growth in non-STEM fields is likely to grow by 12 percent over the next decade, STEM positions will outpace this growth at a rate of 17 percent. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has estimated that STEM fields will create 1 million new jobs by 2022.
In addition to spearheading innovation in cutting-edge fields such as medicine, computing, renewable energy, and space exploration, STEM professionals also earn, on average, 26 percent more than their non-STEM counterparts. But despite the numerous personal and societal benefits presented by the rapidly growing STEM sectors, STEM workers remain a highly homogenous group. This is why Phillips Charitable Organizations has embedded STEM education within its philanthropic mission, regularly providing scholarships for students seeking engineering degrees.
Although women comprise nearly 50 percent of the American workforce, they only make up approximately 28 percent of the science and engineering sectors, and the number of female computer science graduates has actually fallen by 12 percent since 1991. Similarly, racial and ethnic minorities comprise just 10 percent of these industries despite accounting for some 26 percent of the general population.
These demographic trends are contributing to a STEM skills gap that is only increasing as these innovative industries expand. A skilled, motivated, and imaginative STEM workforce is crucial to the ongoing competitiveness and prosperity of the United States, and several studies—such as a National Center for Women & Information Technology report, which found that mixed-sex teams file 40 percent more technology patents—have indicated that diversity is a catalyst for innovation. Still, companies struggle to build qualified teams that accurately reflect the country’s population.
How can we encourage students from a wider range of backgrounds to pursue STEM topics in school and beyond? Here are a few ways that we can encourage the STEM leaders of tomorrow:
Introduce STEM Early
Educational research has demonstrated that STEM achievement gaps often begin to form as early as elementary school. In addition, research by thought leaders such as Claremont Graduate University associate professor of education Deborah Faye Carter suggests that students from minority backgrounds face more severe social and financial struggles that may impact their academic performance and motivation to challenge themselves.
For these reasons, parents and educators should introduce children to STEM as early as possible. Students who have an opportunity to explore STEM topics early on in life will have a higher likelihood of finding a niche that interests them, as well as more time to pursue it.
Curriculums that include age-appropriate, hands-on learning opportunities are a great way to accomplish this in the classroom. Outside of school, summer programs, kid-focused science websites, STEM-based toys and games, and trips to locations such as museums, zoos, and nature preserves can all provide an early introduction to the worlds of science, math, engineering, and technology.
Encourage College Retention
Even when students have a passion for STEM subjects, they often struggle to translate this interest into successful careers. The Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA found that students pursuing STEM degrees graduate at a lower rate than their peers in other programs, and the National Center for Education Statistics recently reported that 50 percent of all declared STEM students change their majors or drop out of school before graduation. This appears to be especially true for students from minority backgrounds.
How can educators ensure that STEM majors complete their degree programs and enter the workforce? The issue is not a matter of student aptitude, but one of student engagement. In general, students who become involved with their academic communities are more likely to complete their degree programs and continue contributing to STEM fields.
To help students stay in school, initiatives such as the Meyerhoff Scholars program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County provide extra guidance and support to STEM students in the form of research mentorships, financial aid, study groups, and summer research opportunities. Meyerhoff Scholars has inspired similar programs at other institutions, and nearly 90 percent of its graduates have earned engineering science degrees.
Provide Relatable Role Models
As kids form their own opinions about STEM, it is important for them to witness realistic examples of successful STEM careers. Children from underrepresented backgrounds may rarely meet successful STEM professionals with whom they can relate, and the chance to see their own identities reflected in innovative industries can provide a valuable spark of inspiration. Initiatives such as Modern Figures, a website launched by NASA to accompany the release of the film Hidden Figures, help to highlight the contributions that individuals from diverse backgrounds have made to science, match, engineering, and technology.
Offer Hands-On Learning
The most effective STEM curriculums are those that allow for hands-on, inquiry-based learning. In addition to introducing concepts, STEM lessons should teach students about research methods and give them the skills to communicate their findings. It is important for students to actively engage with science and technology long before they enter a college or high school chemistry lab.
Experiential learning opportunities allow students to connect STEM topics to their own lives. For example, an activity such as exploring plant species in a nearby forest or taking apart a cell phone help to illustrate STEM’s expansive relatability to everyday life, and can often spark a student’s lifelong interest in scientific and technical fields.
Emphasize Parental Support
While engaging, hands-on school curriculums and the guidance of successful role models can go a long way in inspiring students to pursue STEM careers, the support of the adults closest to them can have the greatest impact upon a young person’s choice of profession. Parents should encourage children’s natural curiosity and provide them with ample opportunities to explore the world around them. In doing so, they can foster a genuine enjoyment of learning rooted not in grades or assignments, but in the experience itself.