Encouraging Kids to Embrace STEM Studies
By Karl Gouverneur, chief technology officer at Northwestern Mutual.
If we’re going to address the shortage of professionals in the STEM disciplines—science, technology, engineering, and math—in this country, one of the keys will be to start talking to young people very early in their lives. I’ve taken this approach with my own son and daughter, who are now 16 and 18. The need for action is real because the pipeline of future professionals looks pretty narrow. According to the U.S. Department of Education, only 16 percent of U.S. high school students are both proficient in mathematics and interested in a STEM career.
To meet the numbers of new workers this country will demand—both in the near and more distant future—we’ll need to find new ways to get more students engaged in STEM topics. We’ll especially need to reach out to girls and young women, as well as other groups that are currently underrepresented.
I think it’s best to start reaching out to kids in grade school; that’s when their minds are more open. These are ages when mentors—not just parents but also teachers, counselors, and other adults—can play an important role in shaping children’s perspectives on science and math. Once a young person gets past middle school, it can be tougher to change his or her mind.
With my own kids, we’ve very consciously made STEM part of their lives from an early age. Computers, tablets, and other gear can be fun toys, but they also help children understand the power of technology. My own interest in technology had a lot to do with some of the first-generation home computers and other gadgets I had when I was young.
We’ve also monitored our kids’ class selections at school to make sure their electives include challenging STEM courses. But the lessons need to go beyond the classroom. During summer vacations, both of my kids have participated in summer camps with STEM-related academic courses and activities. This year-round reinforcement is key to keeping kids engaged in these subjects.
None of this is to say it’s always been easy to encourage them. One of our biggest challenges has been overcoming the myth that girls are just not good at math and science. My daughter fell into this trap in her late middle school and early high school years. That was difficult.
Instead of pushing harder on her—something I think most parents of teenagers can tell you doesn’t work well—we decided to get some outside help. In our case, that was a tutor—someone who could not only help her learn, but also encourage her to succeed. And once she reached 10th grade, this really turned around. She now has a real interest in STEM courses, especially math and technology. But the myth is still out there, and we all have a responsibility to help break it down.
There are lots of other resources, too—for example, activities that help children understand what they can create themselves and put the power of scientific and technical knowledge in their own hands.
That’s why programs like Cyber Girlz, the sponsors of the camp my daughter attended, or Girls Who Code, the organization Reshma Saujani founded, are so valuable. (Note: Northwestern Mutual recently presented Saujani with the Forbes Impact Award in Leadership at the Forbes Women’s Summit. Read more here.) They can help bring classwork to life by giving students not just instruction, but also the opportunity to go hands-on and build applications and games. Programs like this can reach kids when they’re younger; and by the time they’re well into their teens, they’ve already developed a passion for these subjects. So their parents don’t have to push them.
Another way to keep kids engaged in STEM studies is to get them involved in some sort of science competition. There are programs like the Science Olympiad, which holds local, state, and national competitions each year. They’re team-based—so kids experience not just the joy of STEM-related content, but also the teamwork, collaboration, and rewards of working on a team. Those are skills that will help them in whatever field of study or career they ultimately choose. We’re used to kids being encouraged to participate in sports. I say, let’s encourage science sports, too. They’re engaging and fun—and more kids can have careers in science and technology than will ever make it as professional athletes.
Finally, if we want more kids to prepare for STEM jobs, we need to show them the connection between what they’re learning now and the future opportunities it opens up for them. A lot of students don’t understand the full range of career possibilities that a solid foundation in STEM subjects makes possible. For those of us who are already enjoying these rewarding careers, it’s our job to take time and help them see what their future could hold.