To generate lasting interest in STEM fields, we'll need more than robots
STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) is a tremendously popular buzzword these days.
The technology that we use on a daily basis is a constant reminder that STEM careers are critical to our economy. The Department of Commerce reported that in 2010, there were 7.6 million STEM workers in the United States. And the pay is usually good. STEM workers earn 26 percent more than non-STEM workers. But there still are not enough people with the skills to fill STEM jobs. In fact, Michigan anticipates a shortage of 274,000 STEM professionals by 2018.
One issue that makes this shortage even worse is that minority groups — which are underrepresented in STEM careers — are also the fastest growing segment of our population. A diverse STEM workforce is necessary for Michigan to compete globally.
Therefore, we need to encourage all types of students to consider a STEM career. However, this is where the real challenge lies, because there isn’t an easy way to do that.
So far, most people who have attempted to solve this problem fall into one of two groups: Educators who don't know what it takes to become a STEM professional; or STEM professionals who don’t know what appeals to children educationally in underrepresented minority groups.
I am fortunate to have had experience in both these areas. I am a minority in both race and gender with a Ph.D. in engineering, and I have experience working with K-12 students in my business and in a nonprofit organization that I founded. Here are some things I have observed in both of these realms.
In order to desire a STEM career, you first have to know about them.
When I got to high school, I was good in math and science, so I was encouraged to attend several engineering summer programs where one white man after another (or maybe an Asian man here and there) told me how wonderful STEM careers were. I just couldn't see myself joining them.
I certainly did not know anyone with a STEM career when I was growing up in an inner-city neighborhood. When I got to high school, I was good in math and science, so I was encouraged to attend several engineering summer programs where one white man after another (or maybe an Asian man here and there) told me how wonderful STEM careers were. I just couldn’t see myself joining them. I didn’t change my mind until a friend of mine, an African-American female, started an engineering program in college.
The moral of this story is: “It is hard to see yourself in a career when nobody in that career looks like you.”
STEM is more than robotics! Sometimes robotics seems to be the only STEM activity that schools put any stock in. Robotics is only a tiny portion of STEM. If someone doesn’t care for robotics, it doesn’t mean that they won’t enjoy STEM. Engineering is used in business, health care, design, and just about every industry on earth, but most students will never know that.
STEM is also more than “STEM Nights.” It is very popular for schools to have an event where a few scientists or engineers stop by and somebody brings a robot to show off. However, this activity should only be a part of a comprehensive STEM program — a small part of a larger commitment.
Another roadblock is that public universities are more limited in their outreach efforts to minority students since the Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action. Because Michigan was so central to that case, universities have to be very careful about how they frame activities. This does not help with STEM recruitment. And, once minority students get to college, graduation rates are very low.
Although women are receiving more STEM degrees than they used to, this doesn’t necessarily translate into careers. At this point, women only represent 10% of the engineering workforce.
So, what is the Next Idea?
First of all, strengthen basic academics.
Once I was trying to get college mentors for some high school students interested in STEM careers. I went to the local university and found their NSBE (National Society of Black Engineers) club. After meeting with the NSBE chapter on campus, I found that out of roughly 30 student members, all but one had changed their majors.
There are several reasons for this common phenomenon, but I think this one is the most important: Engineering is academically rigorous, and many students simply aren’t prepared for what they face as freshmen. Minority students tend to be less likely to be prepared for the coursework.
In my opinion, academic preparation in high school is more crucial to the success of students in STEM than any club or activity.
Secondly, students need to be around professionals who look like them — people in STEM fields who can mentor them, not just meet them in passing. I feel that, as much as the occasional event may be inspiring to students, what really helps is when students can have a relationship with a mentor they get to know and trust. It takes an enormous amount of time to build those relationships. And it takes established minority and female STEM professionals deciding to devote some time to mentoring.
I certainly hope that our society is willing to go a little deeper to prepare the next generation of STEM professionals. We have to be willing to do whatever it takes to broaden children’s minds. There is no quick fix to this problem, and it will require a significant investment of time, talent, and finances. We have to be willing to try different approaches and gain insight from people who are different than we are. Our future depends on it.
Keli Christopher started her career as a civil engineer for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She is the founder of Mind Boggle, a kid-centered STEM programming business, and the director of STEM Greenhouse, a nonprofit with a mission to improve math and science education for minorities and girls.