Preparing K-12 Students for Future STEM Careers

It’s become a well-known fact that most students are woefully unprepared for careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (otherwise known as STEM). Students in the United States regularly score low on math and science tests, lagging behind other developed nations.

This is despite the fact that STEM careers pay exceptionally well—college students who graduate with STEM degrees earn quite a bit more than their counterparts with degrees in other fields. Not to mention, the demand for workers with STEM degrees is huge and continues to grow.

These facts should leave no question about the importance of preparing students for careers in STEM. The real question is, how can we get students ready for STEM careers?

Get Students Excited

The first challenge educators face is getting students excited about STEM. Traditional approaches to STEM subjects can bore students and turn them off from future studies in STEM fields. Incorporating more hands-on learning activities is one sure-fire way to boost student interest in STEM. Giving students the opportunity to build a robot, conduct experiments, or take an STEM-related field trip can boost their desire to succeed in math and science class.

Inviting professionals from various STEM careers can also increase student engagement. Students need to see first-hand that a good STEM education can lead to exciting and high-paying jobs. For girls, seeing a woman with a successful STEM career can be even more helpful, as girls too often don’t see themselves reflected in STEM professionals. The same is true for minority students who are underrepresented in STEM fields.

Increase Rigor

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

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

While not every student will succeed in tackling more rigorous STEM material, even just giving gifted students the opportunity to try can produce results. After all, if schools don’t attempt to expose students to challenging material, they’ll never know what students may be capable of.

Start Early

A crucial mistake educators and schools are making when it comes to preparing students for STEM careers is simply waiting too long. While math and science are required subjects for elementary students, many elementary educators ignore the technology and engineering components of STEM. This means when students are exposed to technology and engineering in middle and high school, they may lack the foundational knowledge needed to succeed.

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

In order to empower elementary educators to teach STEM, teacher preparation programs must focus more heavily on STEM content. Elementary teachers who themselves lack a good STEM education cannot be expected to teach STEM subjects well. By requiring future elementary educators to take more STEM-related coursework, colleges can help boost the level of STEM education students receive.

However, elementary educators must also challenge themselves to incorporate STEM into their lessons. This can be as simple as adding STEM vocabulary to activities they already use—referring to activities as experiments, calling a theory a hypothesis, etc. STEM is a natural fit for younger students, 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 a lack of STEM education on to schools and principals, who can then blame the county or school district, and so on. In reality, preparing K-12 students for STEM careers is a shared responsibility. Superintendents and higher-ups must make STEM a priority when it comes to budgeting and funds. Schools must support teachers and offer STEM electives, as well as challenging STEM courses. Lastly, teachers of all grades and subjects must make an effort to include at least the basic principles of STEM in their classrooms.

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