For Chevron, this has meant establishing partnerships with organizations like Project Lead the Way and the Fab Foundation to bring pre-college STEM training to high school students.

A handful of students from Ohio were at the conference, showing off what they’ve learned so far in an on-site fabrication lab.

“I’ve really liked the emphasis on doing actual projects,” said Cory Gabel, a high school senior. “It does a great job of easing high school students like me into being first-year engineering students.”

Easing that transition is an important part of initiatives like Project Lead the Way, said Brian Iselin, an instructor for the program in Lorain County, Ohio.

Students often grow bored or frustrated with STEM classes, he said, because the material is dry and based around textbooks and exams. Iselin said the trick is taking those concepts and creating projects around them, something students don’t usually encounter until they’re in college–if they’ve managed to stick with STEM that long.

“Just seeing how this stuff is applied to the real world does so much,” he said. “That’s what makes the difference.”

At a panel discussion that same week, Jeff Goldstein, director of the Arthur C. Clarke Institute for Space Education, also criticized the way most STEM courses are taught in primary and secondary schools.

He pointed to how most people are born curious, but the way STEM topics are taught can dull that curiosity.

Schools need to find a way to more authentically recreate how researchers actually work, but do so in a classroom setting, he said. That could help reignite some students’ natural curiosity, which fades as they age.

“Babies love to poke the universe and see what happens,” Goldstein said.