Climate Change and STEM Career Preparation: Building a Diverse Workforce


Research indicates that middle school is an important time to engage students in playful exploration of future careers. A survey of practicing scientists, mathematicians, and engineers provided the surprising finding that more than 25% of STEM workers had already begun to think about a career in STEM before age 11, and more than a third had decided on a STEM career by age 14. Middle school and high school students can start preparing now if they are interested in science and engineering degrees.

Career Profile: Climate Scientist

What does a climate scientist do?

There are many possibilities, from conducting research assessing past climate and current climate change, to modeling and preparing for future climate impacts.

What can students do to prepare for a career in climate science?

Climate scientist Steve Vavrus, University of Wisconsin-Madison, makes the following suggestions (2011):

Try to become as knowledgeable about a really wide range of topics that bear on climate. It's so interdisciplinary. You may be really interested in one topic, say meteorology, but if you want a career in climate science, you need to broaden yourself and learn about other related aspects of climate such as geology, biology, history, economics, and engineering. Computer programming experience is helpful. Learn more math. It always comes in handy!

What about after high school?

A bachelor's degree in an Earth science is needed for entry-level positions. Some companies prefer applicants with master's degrees. A doctorate is required for college teaching and for some research positions.

Compensation and outlook:

The average annual salary for environmental scientists is $71,600. Nationally, employment of environmental scientists is expected to increase by 28% between 2008 and 2018.

What if you make the wrong decision and end up not liking your job?

With science training, there are many different career options upon graduation. And, don't worry, according to, on average people change jobs an average of eight times before they are 30; and as many as 20 times throughout their career. Your preparation will provide you the background you need to pursue a wide variety of exciting careers, and support the development of new skills and interests as you get older.

Investigate the website O*NET Online for specific STEM careers. Students can choose a STEM career such as Climate Change Analyst, and find descriptions of the tasks involved in that job, the tools and technology used, the education required, the median wages and employment outlook.

Explore the "Women@NASA" website and consider using this resource with your students to encourage the idea that women can also explore the myriad of opportunities available to them to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

What is the fuss about STEM? Read the "Recommendations" section from "Preparing Students for STEM Careers" for good ideas and resources for preparing students for STEM careers.

View the "Rich Robinson: Nanoscientist" video from PBS NOVA series on The Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers. Rich speaks of how he gave back to his community to encourage students to pursue interests in STEM. As you listen, determine what made the biggest differences in Rich's life that steered him in the direction of a STEM career.

Next, take a look at NASA Climatologist Gavin Schmidt for a more direct look at someone who is involved in STEM and global climate change.

You may wish to explore The Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers website for a close-up look at more scientists and engineers. Which ones in particular might be of greatest interest to your students? Consider looking further into these scientists' lives by viewing several more of their video clips highlighting their hobbies and interests. Your students need to see that scientists are "just like them" and have outside interests which make them, in the eyes of students, "normal" and not just "science geeks".

Research indicates that grounding STEM education in a local community context can be especially motivating (Sobel, 2004). Take a look at "Alaska Native Teens Help Researchers" from PBS LearningMedia to see how local students contributed to research about local climate change and became engaged in real science.

You may wish to examine the following resources to share with students so they can explore and learn about the kinds of opportunities that are available now and are representative of what will be available to students who pursue STEM studies in middle and high school. Remember, the goal is to share positive role models in STEM fields with students, so they can see themselves in the examples of scientists, engineers, and mathematicians that they study.

Climate Science Careers:

Climatologist: Charles Kironji Gatebe

Climatologist: Nadine Unger

Permafrost Expert: Larry Hinzman

Environmental Biology Undergraduates: Ann Bui and Dan Killam

Chemist: Sherrisse Bryant

Science Teaching:

Science Teacher: Dustin Madden

Green Careers:

Renewable Energy Scientist: Tom Zambrano

How can you make sure your students see that science, technology, engineering and mathematics are important in their own community and in their own lives?

How can you best show your students that many of those working in STEM fields are not extraordinary people, but people with similar interests and cultural and ethnic backgrounds as the students themselves?

Global Climate Change Modules

Online Professional Development

PBS Teacherline

PBS TeacherLine, the premier provider of online professional development services for PreK-12 educators, has the goal of making professional development accessible, affordable and engaging for teachers. Our hope is that our courses can help inspire and guide STEM learning at every age and in every discipline.

Integrate science and mathematics learning with technology and the engineering design process to investigate solutions to real-world problems with our STEM courses.

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