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How to Build STEM Career Awareness at Your School

What are some ways teachers can get students excited about STEM education and the future prospects it could hold for them?

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How to Build STEM Career Awareness at Your School

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Corporate, education, and government leaders alike are calling for improvements to STEM education in the U.S. Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) suggests that employment in occupations related to STEM is projected to grow about 13 percent between 2012 and 2022, faster than all occupations over the same timeframe. But, according to the U.S. Department of Education , only 16 percent of American high school seniors are proficient in math and interested in a STEM career. Even among those who do go on to pursue a college major in the STEM fields, only about half choose to work in a related career. So, what are some ways teachers can get students excited about STEM education and the future prospects it could hold for them?

To begin to answer this question, NOVA spoke with several middle and high-school STEM educators from around the country about how they’re engaging students in STEM career conversations. They shared their ideas about the need to bridge the disconnect between classroom content and its real-world application, how to challenge students to follow their own science muse through the Genius Hour approach—and how to draw inspiration from real scientists, like those profiled in

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NOVA’s Secret Life of Scientists & Engineers (SLOSE).

Create the Awareness, Build the Skills

Caroline Goode, a STEM consultant and 2014 Massachusetts State Science Educator of the Year, has over 25 years experience teaching and designing STEM curriculum, and she contends that basic awareness, as simple as it sounds, is still an issue. “There is a disconnect between the skills—especially math—that students are learning and their awareness that those skills can be directly applied in the work world,” says Goode.

Her message for teachers is to address that disconnect by embracing inquiry-based learning where students take on the work of a scientist or engineer. “The three C’s—collaboration, communication, and creativity—are key to success in the classroom and in the workforce. This means moving away from the outdated “scientific method” of teaching and “cookbook labs” and instead focusing on the process of science and engineering design. It’s through interdisciplinary, inquiry-based instruction that students build the essential skills for the 21 st century workforce.”

And how can teachers improve their in-classroom STEM teaching and mentoring skills? Goode recommends teachers look at e-Mentoring for Student Success (eMSS) run by The New Teacher Center of Santa Cruz . eMSS is an online professional development program for new and out-of-field teachers of science, along with mathematics, ELA, and other subjects. But even programs like this fall short of bridging the disconnect. She also recommends teachers look to a resource like NOVA’s Secret Life of Scientists & Engineers to help. SLOSE videos and their support materials “could be the perfect way to fill the disconnect students have between the value of their studies and real world opportunities. The impact of this approach would ensure that all students would come to realize the multitude of careers open to them as they prepare themselves for college and careers beyond,” says Goode.

Pilot Barrington Irving's profile is just one of the many career videos available from the Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers collection.

Mentors and Diversity

Goode also thinks that diversity—as portrayed in a series like SLOSE—is critical: “It’s important to showcase successful women and minorities in our teaching. How else will all students understand that race does not have to be a determining factor in future success? Exposing all students to all ethnic backgrounds within the science (and other) communities should be a priority when planning science instruction at every grade level K-12 and beyond.”

For Sada Ganske, a middle-school science teacher in Anoka County Public Schools in Minnesota, the SLOSE series has enabled her—as a teacher—to break a barrier she had with her students. In her county, 37% of adults have less than a high school diploma. “The difficulty was finding the students role models with post-secondary education. And finding diverse role models was an even greater challenge. For years I struggled to find a source that showed current women and minorities in science and engineering careers. Then, when I came across NOVA’s Secret Life of Scientists & Engineers while searching the Internet, and I felt like I had hit the jackpot. I have my students view videos, compare and contrast scientists’ stories, examine stereotypes and “dig deeper” by selecting an element of the story for further research.”

In the three years since, she’s noticed a tangible impact on students and their ideas about STEM careers. “Students can now see the connection between their interests (e.g., sports, music, art) and STEM subjects. They have adult role models that they can reference who didn’t have to choose between their passion or “doing science,” but rather were able to embrace both. Watching students connect with the videos and stories and develop a sense of hope about their future choices or paths is empowering. They’re saying that they can now picture themselves as scientists or engineers,” says Ganske.

Find the Experts—Sometimes in Unlikely Places

The next challenge Sada Ganske faced in her STEM career activities might be viewed by many as a good problem to have: “One of the challenges for students is narrowing down their career research to one topic. The field is so diverse, with so many offerings, and many jobs are so cutting edge that the only truly accurate information we can get is from first-hand sources.” Her advice is to go to where the experts are: “We are in the suburbs of the Twin Cities, so we have a plethora of science and engineering schools, companies and organizations close by. We’re able to tour the University of Minnesota’s robotics labs and physics facilities and talk to current students. [Corporations such as] 3M, Medtronic and Veritas all have outreach programs (or at least people on staff who belong to organizations that do outreach) and come into the school free-of-cost.”

But what if schools don’t have access to those institutions? “Let it be known that you want to have people in your classroom physically or virtually,” says Ganske. “Once you put that out there, people start sharing connections that you may not have made on your own. In this day and age, you don’t have to be near a site to capitalize on what it has to offer: We have FaceTimed and Skyped with people at the Wolf Center in Ely (5 hours away) and in Washington, D.C. ”

Some of her colleagues at other schools are surprised to learn of her success in engaging some unlikely partners in the STEM career activities. “Don’t underestimate the value of unusual resources. We have a local archery club that does a fantastic presentation on physics. Who knew? And government programs (like the U.S. Geological Survey and Army Corp of Engineering ) do outreach for schools. Their presentations are awesome and the speakers have been enthusiastic and connected well with kids,” says Ganske.

Joining Forces Anniversary Event

NASA astronaut Kay Hire speaks to students about STEM careers at a White House event in 2015.

Meet Students Where They’re At

Jessica Anderson is a high school science teacher in Powell County, Montana, and was recently chosen as the 2016 Montana Teacher of the Year for her innovative use of digital tools to personalize learning for her students and her “ blended learning ” classroom approach.

Anderson’s advice for teachers is to infuse creativity and passion into your STEM teaching by “meeting students where they’re at.” One way she does this is through the Genius Hour model. “Students pick a topic or problem to explore that they’re really interested in or passionate about — anything—and that’s their project for an hour each Friday. It can last weeks. My role is to mentor and coach their projects, keep them moving forward, and embed all the skills that scientists use. We start by asking a question, and then we investigate those questions by deciding the sources we’re going to use, collecting data, and formulating a response to that question, and presenting that at the conclusion. Students can be so creative in this mode because it’s about them delving into their passion, finding something new, and coming up with further questions. This can be done in any class, not just STEM. I’ve been doing this for 3 years, and I’ve seen noticeable progress in students’ enthusiasm and skills. They were never this excited about coming to science class on Fridays!”

Anderson also embeds STEM career discussions into these projects. “I emphasize that these are the same skills that STEM professionals are employing in their day-to-day work: creativity, posing a question, and finding an answer,” she says. For many of the students, they find themselves compelled to contact STEM professionals in their community or beyond for information or assistance with their Genius Hour projects—providing yet another context for STEM career dialogue or mentoring.

Lower Volume, Lasting Effects

Anne Jolly is a scientist, STEM curriculum developer, and a former Alabama Teacher of the Year. Her advice is for teachers to introduce STEM career talks into their content in an ongoing, daily way. It’s a “quieter” approach, but no less effective. “STEM career awareness can be an ongoing activity that’s integrated naturally into core classes and gives students a reason to learn material. For example, to introduce a study of rate in math class, teachers could begin by asking students to think of real world examples in which it would be important to calculate a flow rate. They might think of water systems and blood flow in the body as examples. Then introduce them to some specific careers such as engineering, ecology, and health-care—possibly in their own locale—that use mathematics in order to solve problems and help people. This will get these careers on their radar,” says Jolly.

Clearly, just from this small sample of (albeit impressive and dynamic) educators, there’s a wide range of strategies, resources, and activities that teachers can introduce into their classrooms to spark the STEM career conversation. In addition to the SLOSE series, PBS Learning Media has an extensive collection of STEM career resources , which is full of short videos accompanied by classroom materials.

Around the country, the number of nonprofit and other organizations supporting STEM career development is huge. Girls Inc. and US2020 are just two of the hundreds focused on mentoring, and SciGirls and IonFuture are examples of innovative—and fun—interactive sites that can also help boost STEM career discussions and activities within your own school and classroom.