Preparing K-12 Learners for Future STEAM Careers

It’s become a well-known fact that many learners are woefully unprepared for science, tech, engineering, and math (otherwise known as STEAM) careers. Learners in the United States regularly score low on math and science tests, lagging behind other developed nations.

STEAM careers pay exceptionally well (college learners who graduate with STEAM degrees earn more than their counterparts in other fields). The demand for workers with STEAM degrees continues to grow.

This should leave no question about the importance of preparing learners for STEAM careers. The question is, how can we get learners ready for STEAM careers?

Get Learners Excited

The first challenge educators face getting learners excited about STEAM. Traditional approaches to STEAM subjects can bore learners and turn them off from future studies in STEAM fields. Integrating more hands-on learning activities is one sure-fire way to boost learner interest in STEAM. Allowing learners to build a robot, conduct experiments, or take a STEAM-related field trip can boost their desire to succeed in STEAM class.

Inviting professionals from various STEAM careers can also increase learner engagement. Learners need to see firsthand that a good STEAM education can lead to exciting and high-paying careers. For girls, observing a woman with a successful STEAM career can be even more helpful, as girls often don’t see themselves reflected in STEAM professionals. The same is true for minority learners who are underrepresented in STEAM fields.

Increase Rigor

One of the reasons learners fall behind in STEAM is a lack of rigor in K-12 education. Learners who don’t have the opportunity to take challenging STEAM courses in middle and high school fall behind when they get to college. Most learners who enter college with a STEAM major change their major after the first year or two (likely due to the challenging STEAM courses they encounter at the college level).

Preparing K-12 learners for STEAM careers means exposing them to more rigorous STEAM content. Educators can scaffold material so more learners experience success with difficult science and math content, and schools can offer more challenging STEAM courses. Middle and high schools should be offering STEAM-related electives, and more high schools must offer learners honors and AP level STEAM courses.

Although not every learner will succeed in tackling more rigorous STEAM material, even just allowing gifted learners to try can produce results. If schools don’t attempt to expose learners to challenging material, they’ll never know what learners may be capable of.

Start Early

A mistake educators in schools are making when preparing learners for STEAM careers is waiting too long. Although math and science are required subjects for elementary learners, most elementary educators ignore the tech and engineering components of STEAM. This means when learners are exposed to tech and engineering in middle and high school, they may lack the basic knowledge needed to succeed.

Why don’t elementary schools focus more on STEAM? One reason could be a lack of knowledge or interest from educators. Elementary educators are already tasked with teaching learners the basics of reading and writing and may find incorporating STEAM overwhelming. Many elementary educators report feeling anxious about teaching STEAM.

To empower elementary educators to teach STEAM, educator preparation programs must focus more heavily on STEAM content. Elementary educators who themselves lack a good STEAM education cannot be expected to teach STEAM subjects well. By requiring preservice elementary educators to take more STEAM-related coursework, colleges can help boost STEAM education learners receive.

However, elementary educators must also challenge themselves to incorporate STEAM into their lessons. This can be as simple as adding STEAM vocabulary to activities they already use, referring to activities such as experiments, calling a theory a hypothesis, etc. STEAM is a natural fit for younger learners who by nature enjoy experimenting and discovering the world around them.

Whose Job Is It Anyway?

It’s easy for educators to pass the blame for lack of STEAM education on to schools and principals, who can then blame the county or school district, and so on. In reality, preparing K-12 learners for STEAM careers is a shared responsibility. Superintendents and higher-ups must make STEAM a priority when it comes to budgeting and funds. Schools must support educators and offer STEAM electives, as well as challenging STEAM courses. Lastly, educators of all grades and subjects must make an effort to include at least the basic principles of STEAM in their classrooms.

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