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 greater professional opportunities not to mention potentially higher salaries. STEM education also fosters analytical and problem-solving skills, and can play a huge role in breaking down barriers many may face in the workplace.
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? Here’s some ideas but first, what is STEM?
Well, STEM is an acronym that stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. The common perception among many is that these subject are difficult and even worse, extremely boring. While the truth is far from this, these attitudes can be very difficult to overcome. As such, if you’re interested in guiding your child toward a STEM curriculum or career, the biggest effort must start at home.
There is science in almost everything we do and see. 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 does that food get converted into glucose and how that glucose gets into cells, and how does our body extract the vitamins and minerals (and what happens to them)? All that from thinking about cooking dinner!
There are things surrounding us and they are pretty amazing. Television, construction, cars, trees, pets, the weather -- the list goes on and on. 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. A bit of excitement will go a long way to changing the way your young one thinks about science.
MATH GETS A BAD RAP!
There’s no getting around it: math is central to everything in the STEM universe. If STEM iwere alive, math would be it’ DNA. To have any hope at all of a STEM career, one has to be able to pass high-level math courses. This may sound depressing to some but the good news is math doesn’t need to be a terrifying. With the right approach math can actually be fun. 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 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.
OK, I know, some of those examples (i.e. orbital trajectories) may not interest some students so find something that does. When I taught math many years ago, I would search out real life examples that students understood. My favorite time was teaching statistics. While I never encouraged gambling, I showed students how the odds were not in their favor. And don’t get me started on the lottery!
OK, maybe you still not getting through. So how about letting them meet STEM professionals in the real work. Most 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. You’d be surprised how effective a few phone calls can be at setting up some time in a lab or maybe even an internship.
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.
KNOCK OUT ANXIETY
Young people can get terribly intimidated by science, math and technology courses, so it’s extremely important to tackle that anxiety. Guide them through high-pressure studying and learning by understanding how stress works. Heck, we have all learned in our lifetime how to deal with stress and it’s time to pass that on. But it’s important to be aware of the warning signs and take steps to deal with it before things get ugly. The longer we wait, the harder it becomes to remedy the situation.
Be aware and 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. Help them understand that very few things worthwhile come without some hard work and obstacles. I know, that’s easy to say but eventually it will sink in. 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.