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3 keys to filling the STEM pipeline

See how a high school science teacher makes STEM come alive

Many educators are familiar with the research suggesting the demand for employees in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. For instance, the nonpartisan New American Economy notes that for every unemployed STEM worker in the United States, there were 13 job openings in 2016. That’s up from five job openings for every unemployed STEM worker in 2010.

Filling the STEM pipeline is critical for our nation’s competitiveness in the global economy. On a more personal level, engaging students in STEM subjects opens their eyes to new career pathways they might not have considered before—and to jobs with a promising future.

Here are three things that K-12 educators should do in their classrooms to encourage more students to consider STEM-related careers.

1. Provide engaging, hands-on learning experiences that show students how STEM concepts are used in the real world.
One of the questions that teachers often hear from their students is: “How will I ever use this when I graduate?” Engaging students in hands-on activities that solve real-world problems help answer this question. It shows them the relevance of what they are learning in STEM classes, and it makes these subjects come alive.

Tying STEM education to real-world problem solving can be very motivating to students. If students can see that STEM careers often involve tackling global and local challenges and improving peoples’ lives, they might be more inclined to explore a career in STEM.

2. Expose students to STEM career options.
Many students never consider careers in STEM fields because they simply aren’t aware of the possibilities that exist. The more students can learn of these possibilities, the more likely they are to discover something that sparks their passion.

It’s important for students to be exposed not only to STEM careers, but also the professionals who serve in them. Students often have very narrow ideas of what a scientist or a computer engineer looks like. Seeing STEM professionals who look like they do—who are the same race or gender, or who come from similar backgrounds—breaks these stereotypes and gives students powerful role models to aspire to.

3. Demonstrate to students that college is attainable.
An often overlooked aspect of filling the STEM pipeline is to introduce the idea that attending college is achievable. Many students come from households in which no family member has attended college before. For these students, the idea of college can be intimidating.

Sometimes, students need to be shown that college is a realistic option for them. Teachers should keep in mind that these students may need extra guidance in understanding how to apply and pay for college—especially if their parents or siblings have never been through the process.

Here’s how you can do this
I use many resources with my high school science students to address these areas of need, but one resource in particular meets all three requirements listed above. It’s TGR EDU: Explore, a free online platform that provides valuable professional learning resources to teachers and students.

This program includes a variety of materials that help students discover who they are, what they want to be, and how to attain their goals.

Hands-on lessons: These hands-on lessons and activities explore real-world applications of STEM concepts. For instance, in one lesson, students conduct a series of chemical tests to determine which major biomolecules are found in common foods, and they use this information to investigate the nutritional content of popular fast-food items. In the course of this lesson, students learn how science plays a critical role in helping people make healthier choices. The lesson has an accompanying training video for educators that illustrates a variety of implementation options.

Project-based learning: To help teachers design their own hands-on activities, TGR EDU has a webinar that provides effective strategies for building project-based learning into the STEM curriculum with the support of industry professionals.

College access: A self-paced learning module called College Blueprint leads students through the college application and admissions process, taking them on a virtual campus tour to visit a financial aid office, an admissions office, and a student center.

My students have found these resources very helpful, especially the timeline of what they should be focusing on at each grade level as they approach graduation and prepare to enter college.

Providing engaging, hands-on lessons that link to real-world problem solving, exposing students to STEM career options (and the professionals who serve in them), and showing students that college is attainable can help more students consider STEM pathways. And even if they don’t choose a STEM-related career, they’ll still be primed for success in whatever field they pursue.

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