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Why STEM Matters

STEM is everywhere—and with good reason.


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Photo courtesy of ISTOCKPHOTO.COM / BESJUNIOR 

Careers in STEM are growing at an explosive rate, and research shows the earlier we expose our kids, the more prepared they’ll be to pursue these fields in high school, college and beyond. That’s why we’re launching a year-long series. Read on to find out how to best support your kid.

The use of technology in our everyday lives seems to increase faster than we can keep up with. While kids have learned to depend on technology, not enough young students are interested in studying the subjects required to pursue a career in technological fields. Studying STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects is required to pursue careers like computer science, robotics, aviation and medicine. This lack of interest is unfortunate because the STEM workforce in the US is growing faster than the overall workforce. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics recently reported that there will be more than one million new job openings in STEM fields by 2022. On top of that, the progressive retirement of the baby boomer generation will create a loss of just as many STEM professionals in the workforce. As result, there will be almost two million STEM jobs to fill in the next five years.

Young college graduates with a degree in a STEM field will have no problem finding a job (an innovative, well-paying job, at that). Jobs in STEM fields pay about 30 percent more than other college-level jobs. But the reality is that many kids aren’t interested in math and science, and therefore may not develop the critical thinking and problem-solving skills required when applying to a STEM program in college.

This is especially true for engineering. The science, math and technology classes in most schools aren’t integrated with engineering applications and students aren’t able to see how their classroom lessons relate to real life. And knowledge of science, technology and especially engineering are necessary to make informed decisions in many aspects of everyday life. For example, which form of energy should you use in your house? Should you invest in a gasoline, diesel or electric car? Which “high-tech” baseball bat should you buy, or how should you choose a robotic device like a vacuum cleaner?

HANDS-ON LEARNING

Academic preparation for college should begin as early as middle school, if not in the late elementary grades, if students are interested in STEM subjects. Kids and teens need to experience practical applications of science and math that teach them how to think critically and solve problems hands-on. Research has shown that real-life experiences students can relate to and enjoy participating in can increase their interest and motivation to learn. The development of high-quality classroom lessons that integrate science, technology, engineering, math and even robotics is lacking. And many teachers aren’t familiar with how to integrate engineering principles, including robotic technology, into their classroom lessons because they weren’t part of their teacher education.

Many students aren’t advised about the benefits of a STEM career—particularly engineering—because their school counselors and parents may not talk to them about the opportunities. All too often this is because they may not be aware of the opportunities that come with a STEM career, such as higher salaries and opportunities to participate in the development of new cutting-edge technologies.

 

PHOTO COURTESY OF LINDA S. HIRSCH
 

PRE-COLLEGE PROGRAMS

Participation in STEM education outside of school, such as the Early College Preparatory Programs offered through the Center for Pre-College Programs at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) in Newark, can make a world of difference when it comes to showcasing STEM opportunities to kids. Increased interest from participating in these kinds of enrichment programs motivates students to seek academic advice, which helps ensure they’re more prepared to enter STEM programs in college.

NJIT’s Center for Pre-College Programs was established in 1979 to increase access to scientific and technological fields for all students, especially those from underserved school districts. All programs involve corporate partners, local school districts and nonprofit educational organizations that provide classroom speakers, financial support, role models, field trips and expertise in teaching science, technology, engineering and math.

ELEMENTARY SCHOOL OPPORTUNITIES

The good news: Your kids can get involved as early as fourth grade. The Center for Pre-College Programs offers a series of summer enrichment programs for students in grades four through 10. These Early College Preparatory Programs (ECPP) have proven to be effective in increasing students’ interest in STEM careers. Students learn about engineering and the design process. Field trips provide opportunities for students to interact with STEM professionals at work. Students as young as fourth grade have shown significantly more positive attitudes towards math, science and technology classes, plus an increased interest in engineering after attending an ECPP program.

Another piece of good news: Students who participate in the program tend to want to stay in it. On average, 60 percent of students attending ECPP summer programs are returning students; many attend for multiple summers, particularly girls in the Women in Engineering program. A majority of parents report that their children’s grades in math, science and technology have improved, and that most want to continue studying STEM subjects.

Young girls who’ve participated in NJIT’s Women in Engineering program (called FEMME for the original name: Females in Engineering, Methods, Motivation and Experiences) develop an interest in pursuing STEM fields. Girls who participate in the FEMME program believe that they can be successful in STEM careers, like engineering, according to NJIT surveys. This is important because women are chronically underrepresented in STEM fields. Follow-up surveys of girls who attended the FEMME program for multiple years, many of whom were from low-income urban areas of New Jersey, show they are more likely to graduate from high school and enroll in college pursuing a STEM major.

ENCOURAGE YOUR KIDS

There are many things parents can do to introduce their kids to the world of STEM:

  1. Urge them to join after-school clubs or community programs such as robotics, math or science. They should also look into school-sponsored competitions such as the New Jersey Science Olympiad (soinc.org) or the Technology Student Association Tests of Engineering Aptitude, Mathematics and Science (TSA: T.E.A.M.S, teams.tsaweb.org).
  2. Call your town’s recreation department. Many offer educational programs on the weekends that focus on STEM activities, like NJ Makers Day on March 9-10.
  3. Contact local museums, aquariums, libraries and parks for STEM-related programs.
  4. The Boy Scouts and Girls Scouts actively promote interest in STEM with merit badges in computer science, engineering, robotics, environmental science and inventing. The Girl Scouts will be adding 23 STEM badges to its lineup this year. Talk to your child’s teachers about other ways he or she can explore these subjects outside the classroom.

The bottom line? If your kids show an interest, it’s never too early to expose them to STEM.

Linda S. Hirsch, Ed.D., is the assistant director for Research, Evaluation and Program Operations for the Center for Pre-College Programs at New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) in Newark.

Learn more about NJIT’s Center for Pre-College Programs.

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