How One Program Sparks STEM Interest in Middle Schoolers

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Creating the next great technology innovations is crucial to the advancement of our society and the American economy.  Unfortunately, the American workforce is crippled by a lack of experts in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), which is what we call the STEM skills gap. Since this week is National Engineers Week, we’re doing a three-part blog series on STEM-related topics. In part one, we examined the fastest-growing STEM jobs for 2015. In part two, we looked at the state of STEM in education and the workforce. In part three (this post), we’ll explore a program that helps inspire middle schoolers to become interested in STEM disciplines through exposure to actual STEM professionals. 

According to research done by the DIGITS project in Massachusetts, if you ask a middle- schooler what kinds of jobs use Math and Science, the most common answers are Math Teacher, Banker, or Cashier. But, after they’ve had a visit from a STEM professional through their program, the kids know about Programmers, Medical Technicians, Engineers, Architects and many other careers, and they are much more likely to be interested in studying more advanced topics in Math and Science.

Kids would love jobs in STEM if they knew about them

This is my third year as a volunteer with DIGITS, which is a program in Massachusetts that places a STEM professional in a seventh grade class to have them talk about their jobs and others you can get if you study math and science. The program started in 2009 after research showed a waning interest in STEM, but a disconnect in what kids said they wanted in a career and what they knew about STEM jobs.

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The surprising fact is that kids said they wanted to travel the world, work on a team, have a flexible schedule, make a good living, make the world a better place and use their creativity. The founders of DIGITS set out the show kids that they could get those things in STEM.

DIGITS gets results

In five years, this program has reached almost 70,000 kids in 300 schools using 800 volunteers. The program is analyzed each year by an independent evaluator, and last year they found statistically significant increases in understanding and interest in STEM careers by the students.

DIGITS also attracts a diverse volunteer base. Nearly half of the volunteers have been women and a quarter have been been minorities. Approximately 20 percent speak another language. Half are from IT, but they also have large numbers of volunteers in the life sciences, manufacturing, engineering and the energy sector.

What you can do to help

If you live in Massachusetts, or even near the border, you can sign up to volunteer for DIGITS on their website. If you’re not, but your kids have a career day, use some of these ideas from DIGITS when you talk:

  1. Do you travel for work, especially to other countries? The research shows that kids are interested in seeing the world, so talk about it.
  1. Talk about how you collaborate and that you work on a team. A lot of kids think science jobs are done alone.
  1. Many STEM jobs, especially in IT, have a flexible schedule. If you have that in your work, it’s worth mentioning.
  1. Talk about how what you do impacts the world. For example, STEM jobs impact healthcare, the environment, and our energy use. Advances in agriculture help feed the world. I write code to help organize
  1. Bring something from your job. DIGITS asks volunteers to bring something we work with — I’m an iOS developer so I bring my iPad with a small app I made to take 3D photos, and we use it to take some photos (and look at them with the 3D glasses I bring). Other volunteers have brought stuff from their robotics or medical labs.
  1. Kids want to use their creativity, so talk to them about how creative your job is.
  1. If you struggled with Math and Science at their age, tell them how you got through it. Kids need to know that it’s not too late for them to get better if they’re having trouble.
  1. Talk to kids about some of the entry-level job possibilities. Not everyone goes to college and we don’t want them to think that a STEM career is closed to them if they aren’t interested in college yet. The truth is that there are many jobs that are a short certificate program away from a high-school diploma, so talk about that aspect of your industry. In IT, there are many self-taught programmers who have started their careers after high-school.
  1. Most importantly, remind them that you use math and science in your job. Once they learned about STEM jobs, a lot of kids reported a close relative that had one. But, they didn’t know that their relative’s job used STEM subjects.

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Contributor

Lou Franco is a software business veteran. He co-authored "Hello! iOS Development” and is currently on the iOS team at Trello. You can learn more about Lou at http://loufranco.com/adecco.

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