Starting Earlier Will Create Better Student Pipelines into STEM Fields

Early exposure to STEM education primes students to take advantage of these career opportunities — and the economic benefits that come with them.

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A student in an elementary school drops an egg wrapped tightly in paper straws and tape to test whether it can survive a high fall. Next door, students engineer a solar oven out of pizza boxes, construction paper and aluminum foil. In another classroom, students construct a “biosphere” using foam balls, fake grass and dollhouses.

These and similar scenes from public schools around the country are more than just young learners having fun with recycled materials. This is STEM education in action: Hands-on projects help students develop critical thinking skills while sparking interest in science, technology, engineering and math.

Research shows that exposing students to STEM between grades one and three provides them with a foundation to enter many STEM-related careers: as doctors, chemists, geologists, computer scientists and many more.

Introducing these fields in elementary school helps capture students’ imaginations and kindle their interest in STEM. Besides the fun, these hands-on learning experiences foster a mindset that embraces innovation, experimentation and collaboration. That foundation will support this generation throughout their lives as they face an increasingly complex, interconnected world.

STEM careers are among the nation’s highest-paying and fastest-growing jobs. Early exposure to STEM education primes students to take advantage of these career opportunities — and the economic benefits that come with them. Without it, we risk perpetuating an exclusionary cycle that alienates underrepresented communities from STEM careers and fuels lifelong opportunity gaps.

As parents have become more involved in their children’s education, they deserve to know how and where STEM is coming to life in their schools — and, more importantly, how to make sure that their children can take advantage of opportunities.

This is especially important now, as inconsistent and inequitable access to these subjects continues to reinforce representation gaps in STEM careers. In today’s STEM workforce, Black and Hispanic adults represent just 8 and 9 percent of the field, respectively. And while women make up 50 percent of STEM workers, they are overrepresented in health-related occupations compared to other areas like engineering and architecture.

We can reduce representation gaps in STEM and prepare more students to join the STEM-related workforce — but we have to start young. Students need opportunities to develop the critical thinking skills that will allow them to succeed in these fields.

That’s why GreatSchools, the nonprofit school information site that helps parents navigate education, partnered with Project Lead The Way (PLTW), a nonprofit organization that encourages STEM-based careers for students through hands-on, project-based learning starting in pre-K.

Because of this new partnership, parents can now see whether a school offers STEM when browsing GreatSchools profiles. Families looking to specifically prioritize STEM programs in their school search can use GreatSchools’ enhanced search tool to display only schools offering these courses.

We believe that providing this information to families — especially those whose identities are underrepresented in STEM careers — will allow them to take advantage of these programs early on, potentially changing the trajectory of their child’s academic and professional lives.

Furthermore, in the wake of the pandemic, parents are asking for different, not just better. It’s not enough just to improve our schools — we also need to change the playbook from which they’ve been operating for decades.

It’s time to meet this moment with action. Here are some ideas I believe education leaders can and should be pursuing in terms of STEM:

  • Make sure teachers have adequate resources. In addition to proper training, teachers need technological equipment — computers, internet access and software — to effectively teach STEM classes.
  • Adopt a curriculum that exposes students to STEM early on. Infusing elementary school curricula with topics and skill development aligned with STEM careers opens students’ minds to a world of possibilities.
  • Create mentoring programs that center underrepresented STEM professionals. Mentors can play a significant role in shaping students’ career trajectories by exposing them to different fields while helping them reach their goals. Giving students the opportunity to connect with professional STEM mentors — particularly Black, Hispanic and female mentors — can help them see themselves in those careers.

Now is our chance to reimagine public education to more equitably serve all students. Exposing students to STEM early in their education is a crucial investment for students, their families and society. Collectively, we all reap the benefits of a diverse, rich workforce representative of the best in our communities.

And yes, we can simply start with a pizza box, paper and foil.

Jon Deane is chief executive officer of GreatSchools.org, a national education nonprofit that supports parents through every stage of their child’s education. He has more than two decades of experience in K-12 education, previously serving as a math teacher and school administrator.

This story about STEM education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

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