How to Nudge Your Child Towards a STEM Career

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Educationally, a STEM path is highly desired by parents because, generally speaking, it offers good opportunities in future life. Students in STEM fields tend to have higher salaries and greater professional opportunities. STEM education also fosters analytical and problem-solving skills, and can play a huge role in breaking down barriers for women and minorities. And yet despite these benefits, schools struggle to guide young people toward STEM subjects, with only around 16% of American high schoolers interested in a STEM career and have strength in math. How can parents turn this around and get their kids interested in a STEM career? Let’s take a look.

STEM is an acronym that stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. The common perception of these subjects is that they’re difficult and, worse, extremely boring. These attitudes can be very difficult to overcome, so it’s where the biggest effort must be made at home.

Find the wonder in science in everyday life

Look around. There is science in almost everything. Let’s just take one simple example: cooking dinner. Think about the techniques (and hard work) that goes into growing and harvesting the fruit and vegetables. Think about the techniques involved in producing that food. And think about the science behind taste. Then there’s the effects on food of cooking. Beyond that one can discover so much about what happens inside our bodies when we eat, especially at the molecular level -- how food gets converted into glucose and how that glucose gets into cells, and how our bodies extract the vitamins and minerals (and what happens to them). And that’s just cooking dinner!

There are things surrounding us that are pretty amazing. Television, construction, cars, trees, pets, the weather -- the list is long. That sense of wonder is key to embracing STEM subjects, and it’s truly sad that it’s not elemental in the way they are taught. At any rate, a bit of excitement will go a long way to changing the way your young one thinks about science.

Embrace mathematics

There’s no getting around it: math is central to everything in the STEM universe. If STEM is a living organism, then math is its DNA. To have any hope at all of a STEM career, one has to be able to pass high-level math courses. The good news is, math needn’t be a terrifying death march through a dark valley of nightmares -- with the right approach, it can actually be fun. No, really! Part of the problem is the way math is taught in school -- it’s usually very dry, repetitive and with little or no connection with the real world.

A central technique in the effort to embrace math is to relate it to real-world examples that the student can relate to. This doesn’t just apply to basic arithmetic, but to advanced concepts too. Formulae on a blackboard come alive when they’re demonstrated using, say, orbital trajectories of spacecraft, or pressure differentials in automotive engines, or data mining techniques. Doing so can help break down psychological barriers and actually lead to excitement about math. Accomplishing it can be difficult, though, most likely requiring extra-curricular activities to supplement classroom learning. Games, books and videos can help, as can a skilled one-to-one tutor.

Spend time with real-world STEM professionals

Many, even most people employed in STEM fields take real pride in their work, and possess a deep excitement about the work they do. You’d be surprised by how many are eager to share their knowledge and experience with curious youngsters. Tours of science labs at local universities, work-shadowing at engineering firms, internships at high-tech startups; a few phone calls or emails may find a willing response.

Of course one must be sure to ensure the safety of one’s children, so do take the standard precautions (for instance going along on a tour). The potential benefits are enormous, because they could stir up a ton of excitement.

Declare war on anxiety

This will help not only the pursuit of a STEM career but the pursuit of a happy life. Young people can get terribly intimidated by science, math and technology courses, so it’s extremely important to tackle that anxiety. Sooth them through high-pressure studying and learning by understanding how stress works in general -- and how it manifests itself in your young person. Be aware of the warning signs and take steps to deal with it before things get ugly.

Most of all, help your student develop the tools to tackle their own anxiety. This will not only help them progress in their STEM efforts, but equip them to deal with many of life’s stumbles and struggles.

Don’t ever ignore anxiety or minimize it. Discuss it openly, and remember that it’s not a sign of weakness or failure. It’s just a normal, human part of being alive. While you’re at it, why not investigate the science of anxiety? You and your child might learn something new!

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