“It is really hard to simply tell kids about careers, so even bringing in guest lecturers is not enough,” said Lounsbury. “Visiting sites, working with equipment, thinking through science projects, or seeing others doing these things is what makes it all click. I wish I could do more of … this for kids—that’s what inspires me.”
“Gumdrop and toothpick towers are fun to build, but I’m not sure they have a significant impact on inspiring a student to pursue a career in engineering,” said Michele Perrin, a math and engineering instructor at Marian Middle School in Missouri. “The hardest part for me is obtaining enough materials to keep the class truly hands-on.”
How to improve
While time constraints, budget concerns, and lack of career knowledge are challenges, there are still ways to interest students in STEM careers.
“My students come in wanting to be doctors, or another health professional. Other than that, they know that they could work in a lab, or become an academic. None of them would ever think of becoming a science journalist, or a patent lawyer, or a quality control specialist at a brewery, just to name a few,” said Nathan C. Ackroyd, a second-year organic chemistry teacher at Mount Royal University in Alberta, Canada. “I think that the best way to get people interested in STEM careers is to discuss options when topics in science that are related to those careers come up.”
Another way is to start early.
“Our experience has shown that if you’re waiting until high school to talk about any career, STEM or otherwise, you’re too late,” said David Jones, an engineer and co-founder of Edamar Inc., a hands-on science education company that makes the KitBook.
“Kids start forming ideas in their minds, consciously or sub-consciously, about what they’re good at or not good at by around fourth or fifth grade. By middle school, they’re already on a path.”
Jones said that in Europe, companies like Siemens enter schools and become involved with students beginning at the kindergarten level.
“Science is something you do, not just read about. Elementary students, not just high school students, need more hands-on lab activities,” he said. “Even if a student is not inclined to become an engineer or scientist, we are all living in an increasingly technology-driven world. It is important for everyone to have a basic understanding of the devices and technologies that are going to be a huge part of their lives.”
Incorporating more hands-on labs, as well as including real-world examples of STEM applications, is another logical way to get students interested in STEM careers.
Casey O’Hara, a physics, engineering, and green technology teacher at Carlmont High School in California and a Knowles Science Teaching Foundation fellow, recently spent a month at the South Pole participating in a polar research expedition to study neutrinos. While there, O’Hara communicated with his students via web chats and blogs, bringing scientific field research to life. He also incorporated his experience into his curriculum.
“By discussing real-life examples of STEM, it opens up conversation to STEM careers,” O’Hara said.
Greg Livadas, a spokesman for the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, a college of Rochester Institute of Technology, said his school offers summer programs to help high school students with hearing loss find their interest.
“They get to do a variety of hands-on activities, including building remote-controlled cars out of Legos, dissecting a cow’s eyeball, doing CSI activities in a lab, writing a business plan, et cetera,” said Livadas. “Our ‘Explore Your Future’ program is a week-long camp for high schoolers to help them figure out if college is right for them, and to offer suggestions on the type of careers that may interest them. We also have a week-long summer program focused on girls, called TechGirlz. We want more girls to enter technological fields, and this year we’re seeing just as many girls as boys enrolled for the first time. TechGirlz offers girls hands-on activities, including building their own computers which they can take home.”
To help teachers learn more about what STEM career opportunities exist for students, as well as give educators a first-hand taste of a real STEM career, colleges and programs around the country are offering state-of-the-art professional development.
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