What Teachers Can Do to Address Shortages in the STEM Fields

Artificial intelligence, big data, and the Internet of Things are all part of our daily lives in 2018, thanks to the curious, talented, and dedicated developers, researchers and thinkers who move technology forward. Some STEM fields have an abundance of skilled workers, while others are facing major shortages, and demand continues to grow overall. Jobs in life sciences, for example, can be hard to come by, while employers hiring for data science are desperately trying to fill open positions. Overall, growth for STEM fields from 2009-2015 was 10.5% as compared to non-STEM job growth of 5.2%. For jobs of the future, young people need in-depth knowledge of computing. But are they going into STEM careers? In some fields, not enough of them.

Kids growing up today are melded with technology in a way previous generations never were. Their lives are steeped in technology, yet so many of them abandon their curiosity about STEM subjects early on in their school careers—particularly girls. Teachers are responsible for laying much of the initial groundwork for getting kids in STEM. It can be a challenge to fuel that interest throughout elementary, middle and high school—but not impossible. Here are some of the ways teachers can help address STEM shortages during the K-12 education.

Inspiring Creativity and Curiosity

Contrary to popular belief, STEM careers involve quite a bit of creativity and are built on curiosity and questions. Without creativity and curiosity, there is no innovation and no new technology or scientific discoveries. Children start experimenting and exploring the world around them from a very young age, and it’s never too early to start inspiring a passion for science, computers, and math. Teachers can weave fun experiences into STEM education by exploring questions students ask about the world and using simple problems children encounter (like trying to reach something on a high shelf) to illustrate how STEM works in our everyday lives. Engaging students early is key for lasting interest in science, math, and technology.

Rejecting Stereotypes

Many adults, including teachers, have internalized harmful messages about STEM stereotypes. These stereotypes include the false belief that some students are naturally more gifted than others in science and math. Often without intending to, educators and parents discourage girls and children in some minority groups from pursuing interests in these subjects. Teachers need to be very aware of their own subconscious biases and work against them in the classroom. This is especially important as students move from elementary school to middle school, and from middle school to high school, as interest in STEM tends to drop as kids get older. Teachers’ attitudes toward STEM are incredibly influential and can encourage or discourage participation in these fields.

Using Technology

To be enthusiastic about technology, kids need to be exposed to it and feel comfortable using it. Coding can be an intimidating concept on its own, but programs that teach coding through video games can be more accessible and enjoyable for kids of all ages. We’re beginning to see more and more technology entering classrooms, increasing options for STEM education and improving students’ proficiency with computers.

Teaching a Growth Mindset

Researcher Carol Dweck of Stanford has built her life around studying mindset, and how it affects intelligence and ability. She found that mindset has everything to do with ability, and that ability can be improved through employing a “growth mindset”. This is the mentality that most of our ability is achieved through learning and hard work, not through innate ability.

Many students get discouraged in math and science because when challenging problems and concepts come up, causing them to become convinced that they aren’t good at these subjects. Teachers can help students achieve and gain confidence by emphasizing the process and learning over the results. Determination is key in many STEM fields, since breakthroughs don’t tend to occur quickly. For a couple of examples, prescription drug development can take 10 years or more from concept to market (with many failed experiments along the way), and we’re only now beginning to reap the benefits of years of work on AI and IoT development. The STEM experts of the future need to develop resilience in the present—and that starts at school.

Sarah Daren has been a consultant for startups in multiple industries including health and wellness, wearable technology, nursing, and education. When she's not watching the New York Yankees play, Sarah enjoys practicing yoga and reading a good book on the beach.

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