All Articles Education Career-Technical Education Promising practices: Creating a STEM workforce for all

Promising practices: Creating a STEM workforce for all

9 min read

Career-Technical Education

SmartBrief recently published an interactive, in-depth digital magazine about building inclusive pathways to STEM careers. The following article was featured in the report. Access SmartReport on STEM for tips from students, educators and other experts. Stay tuned to SmartBlogs, where we’ll highlight articles from the report in the coming weeks.

The future is bright for careers in science, technology, engineering and math.

STEM jobs are expected to grow to more than 9 million between 2012 and 2022, an increase of about 1 million jobs over 2012 levels, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

STEM skills also will be more in demand in non-STEM fields if past data trends hold true. In 2010, 16.5 million college-educated individuals working in non-STEM fields said their jobs required some level of training in science and engineering.

Research shows STEM will continue permeating many areas of the future world of work, and we hope the culture is one in which individuals — regardless of socioeconomics, gender, skin color or disability — have equal opportunities for success.

But there are roadblocks to participation  for some groups, including minorities, women, individuals with disabilities, military veterans and individuals from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. The persistent underrepresentation of these groups in STEM has been well-documented.

SmartBrief Education gathered a group of experts for the Equity in STEM: Taking the Challenge to Build an Inclusive Workforce event to discuss ways to remove some of these roadblocks and build inclusive pathways to STEM careers. The panelists highlighted strategies to help bridge the gap among underrepresented populations, including girls and individuals with disabilities.

Promising best practices include increasing exposure to STEM careers and the world of work, focusing on relevance in STEM and teaching technical and social skills. On-the-ground action items include makerspaces and skill-based volunteering. Keep reading for a deep dive into these — and other — ideas that businesses, educators and others can begin using today to help build the inclusive STEM workforce of tomorrow.

The world of work

Women are underrepresented in science and engineering.What’s more, in all racial and ethnic groups, more men than women work in science and engineering occupations.

“When you walk into a place and you see thousands of young people working and the majority of them are men, it becomes very clear that we really have a lot of work to do,” said Kathy Hurley, author of “Real Women, Real Leaders” and co-founder of Girls Thinking Global.

Nepris CEO Sabari Raja agreed, recalling a former position as an engineer on a predominantly male team. “[T]he inclusiveness in the workforce — within the culture in a company … matters. You don’t want to feel left out,” she said. “Many companies are doing a lot of things to address this, but that’s something to keep in mind as well: It’s not enough to get them there, but it’s also important to keep them there.”

There also is more to be done to boost inclusion of individuals with disabilities in STEM workplaces.

“Our workplaces really aren’t set up for people with … neurological differences to come in and be productive members,” said Patrick Waters, an educator who teaches students with neurological differences at The Monarch School in Houston.

“We’re not recognizing that they have special strengths and great innovative things to bring to our workforce and be a real economic driving factor,” he said. But “they also have challenges, and we need to accept and accommodate those challenges to really integrate this population.”

“We to have to set up a system that directly teaches … soft skills, and we need a kind of a transition period and then recognize that transition period in their 20s to get them ready to enter the workforce at a full-time capacity.”

Promising practice: Teach technical and social skills

Leadership, communications and analysis are some of the most valued skills in our economy, and 96% of all occupations require critical thinking and active listening, a Georgetown Public Policy Institute report shows.

“Work is not only a technical skill, especially in the STEM workplace,” Waters said. “In reality, work is just as much a social world as it is a technical world. You can have all the technical skills you want, but if you’re not a social creature, you’re not going to last in the social workplace. You’re not going to be able to work with other people, you’re not going to be able to communicate with them.”

Most typically developing individuals have had “a cultural experience that we’ve gone through; we’ve had other people just like us explain these cultural experiences, and we processed it in a certain way,” Waters said. “For students and people with neurological differences, that hasn’t happened.”

“If we recognize that young people with neurological differences need that direct instruction and those soft skills, we can also give them the technical skills to go with it.”

Promising practice: Increase exposure to STEM

The modern world of work may seem like an elusive concept to some students. Those from low-income backgrounds and rural areas, for example, may have little exposure to the type of 21st-century STEM jobs projected for growth in the decades ahead.

“Many times, this world of workplace is such a big black box,” Raja said. “They’re making decisions without knowing what this world … looks like. It’s our job as teachers, as parents, as industry leaders to bring these experiences to the classroom.”

Skills-based volunteering

Mentoring has its place among potential solutions to expose more students to STEM, but it may not be the best fit in terms of scalability for a large number of students and schools, Raja said. Instead, she suggests a skills-based volunteering program in which a variety of industry experts can share their stories in smaller increments of time with students.

“Not all professionals have the time to take on a mentoring relationship and work with one child for a long period of time,” Raja said. “So we’re losing a lot of professionals with great skills [who] can provide these inspirational moments because we’re throwing everybody under the umbrella of mentoring.”

Technology as a conduit

“Not everybody lives in a big city or goes to school in a big city. There are many, many rural classrooms that have absolutely no access,” Raja said. “I myself come from a very small village in South India. I had no idea what STEM was or what an engineer was, so the accessibility is a huge issue, and technology is the one that can actually help bridge that gap.”

Diverse exposure

There are two prongs to diverse exposure — exposure to a diverse set of people working in STEM and exposure to a diverse range of STEM jobs.

“It’s often through the mentoring programs we bring one person, and … most of the time that person may be a mechanical engineer, but this child may want to be something else,” Raja said. A skills-based approach can help shift this paradigm.

“Within a short period of time, if we’re able to introduce them to a diverse set of careers that has a long-lasting impact, then there is a better chance of having something put in front of them that they can actually relate to or that they can aspire toward,” Raja said.

Promising practice: Make it relevant

Students admittedly can be a tough audience, but if you design experiences that tap into their interests, you’ll likely see a dramatic change, marked by engagement, eagerness and passion.

It’s that connection of taking something you’re learning in the classroom and applying it to the real world; and through that process, introducing them to real people, real careers, making real products that you actually use in your everyday life, Raja said.

“One of the big things that we’ve seen is the lack of relevance,” Raja said. Students ask: “‘Why am I learning what I’m learning in the classroom? How am I going to apply this in the workforce? We see a lot of different examples, even as early as fourth and fifth grade. Girls are asking the question: Why do I need to learn math if I’m not going to be an engineer? Creating that relevance is so important to bridging this gap.”

Humanizing STEM

Women may be more drawn to STEM jobs that fall under the umbrella of social sciences.

Data show women are more likely than men to work as psychologists or as technologists and technicians in the life sciences, with the highest participation in psychology at 70%. Participation also is high in biosciences and social sciences, with the exception of economics.

“If you look at life sciences, if you look at doctors and nurses, a huge percentage of them are women, because they know there is a connection to their work to actually making an impact,” Raja said.

“It’s an important connection for girls that we fail to make,” Raja said. “We talk about that it’s important to learn coding, but how are we helping them connect that to some meaningful career that’s out there?”

“Really, those are the kinds of connections we’re looking for,” she added. The question is: “How do we take something that’s so mechanical or programmatic and make it real, where you’re really making a difference in people’s lives?”

Melissa Greenwood is the director of content for the education team at SmartBrief, covering K12, higher education and Path to Workforce.

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