Destigmatizing STEM fields is the first step in building a STEM pipeline
Students are more likely to pursue STEM when they see STEM educators who look like them
See related article: 3 essential tools to make elementary science easier
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The demand for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) professionals outweighs the supply. The number of U.S. technology job vacancy postings in September 2022 exceeded 804,000, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a need for 3,800 new aerospace engineers every year until 2031–an industry that is already grappling with employee retention and workforce shortages. These numbers are reflective of the broader STEM community and related career fields, including scientists and mathematicians.
I believe that the low supply of STEM professionals can be attributed to significant barriers to entry originating in educational settings–this is to no fault of teachers and administrators, but how the educational system is structured. Many of these barriers disproportionately affect those from underrepresented communities. Women, for instance, make up only 28 percent of the STEM workforce, whereas Black, Hispanic, and Asian adults combined make up only 30 percent.
I want to start a conversation on how we can destigmatize STEM, keep the talent pipeline fresher and more abundant for the future and diversify the workforce. Efforts to fulfill a STEM talent pipeline cannot begin in one’s first year of college, as there needs to be more thoughtfulness and action occurring in K-12.
Cultivating an early interest in STEM
There is a stigma surrounding math and science that typically begins in elementary and middle schools, perpetuating the idea that math and science is ‘scary,’ too hard or challenging, or a topic meant for boys. Studies have shown that if you start cultivating STEM interest in kindergarten through fifth grade classrooms, students will have a greater chance of pursuing a career in the field. This is especially true in underrepresented groups, as societal stereotypes—specifically asserting that women and girls should be less interested in STEM—can begin as early as six years of age.
Some of the challenges facing schools and teachers include:
Lack of STEM educators and diversity. In the 2022-23 school year, 17 state education agencies (almost one-third of the country) expressed that one of their greatest challenges has been filling STEM teaching positions. And, those with filled positions are not representing diverse groups. Currently, STEM teachers are primarily non-Hispanic or white (79 percent), even in school systems with extremely diverse student populations. Hiring both ethnically and gender diverse teachers can help set an example for underrepresented groups. Students seeing successful adults who look like them can make a difference in expanding interest amongst a larger group of students.
Hyper-focused on standardized testing. Because of the way the education system is structured, a lot of curriculum is centered around standardized testing—passing AP exams, getting into colleges, etc. While these tests are important, they limit the ability to put the scientific method in action. Instead, students would greatly benefit, and likely find science more fascinating, from physically conducting the process and then reaching a conclusion, as opposed to memorizing definitions. Secondarily, the ability to participate in hands-on scientific experiments and visual demonstrations can really inspire kids. This was the case for myself. I understand that not all school districts have these resources, which leads me to the next bullet point.
Inadequate or unavailable resources. It’s no secret that educators’ time and budgets are stretched thin. A study surveying middle and high school science teachers found that 70 percent do not feel they have adequate funding to provide high-quality science instruction—resulting in spending an average of $450 out-of-pocket each year for extra lab materials. Quality instruction means providing the ability to do lab work! That requires teachers to purchase chemicals for experiments or animals for dissection, not to mention keeping lab tools readily available, such as eye safety equipment, beakers, or microscopes. The cost of these items can add up very quickly, and before you know it, teachers have blown through their budgets.
What I am advocating for
The onus does not fall entirely on educational institutions to cultivate interest in STEM and plug the schooling gaps. There needs to be collaboration amongst educational institutions, nonprofit organizations, and the private sector. For starters, there are many nonprofit organizations that provide varying degrees of scientific extracurricular activities. My local Boy Scout troop has an ‘Explorers’ Group’ that allows boys to engage with chemistry and other scientific studies. The Girl Scouts have a similar program, providing opportunities for girls to earn STEM Career Exploration badges through accompanying activities aligned with age ranges. Additionally, many 4-H programs nationwide also enable kids to dabble in astronomy, biology, technology and other STEM careers through summer camps and after-school programs. This doesn’t even include local events hosted by nonprofits, such as D.C.’s Carnegie Foundation, which provides different scientific programs on the weekend for children, such as experiments and visual demonstrations that are free to the public. In order to raise awareness amongst students and their parents, we need to collaborate with the schools in these regions, as well as provide the necessary resources to get students to and from these programs.
In addition, I would like to advocate for private sector organizations to consider sabbaticals for educational purposes. As mentioned above, there is an extreme lack of STEM educators, but there are a lot of STEM professionals that are passionate about education and mentorship.
Giving those scientists, engineers, and technologists the ability to take paid leave and go within a school system for a period of time to teach could make a huge difference. These individuals can really ‘move the needle’ in cultivating greater interest in STEM by sharing personal anecdotes about their career experiences and highlights. This requires both school districts and enterprises to be receptive, but I believe it would have a profound impact on learning and supporting overwhelmed schools. So, here’s looking at you, Bell Labs! Let’s get started on this together!