By Ashley Pereira
Think back to when you were 12 years old: What did you want to be when you grew up?
I have loved horses my entire life, and grew up riding them. I dreamed of becoming a horse trainer, doing what I loved and getting paid! In high school, I worked as an assistant horse trainer, thinking I was on track for my future career.
Then my boss was severely injured in a riding accident. Not only was I jobless for at least six months, but I also realized I no longer wanted a career in horse training. I had already missed most college application deadlines, as I had not considered other options. Now what?
Each year countless students graduate from high school (and sadly, even college) and ask themselves this same question. At a time when more science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) jobs are available than available workers (Bureau of Labor Statistics 2019), this simply should not be the case. The solution is STEM career awareness and exploration, starting early on.
Doctor, lawyer, veterinarian, nurse—so many of us default to careers that may not be the best fit, simply because they are the only careers of which we are aware. I had no idea what my career options were. I know now I was not the only teenager who felt that way!
According to a 2019 Gallup poll, Not Just a Job: New Evidence on the Quality of Work in the United States, only 40% of employed Americans are in “good jobs,” meaning they expressed high satisfaction across 10 important job characteristics (flexibility, pay, and so on). Researchers found that while most workers in good and mediocre jobs rated their overall quality of life as “high,” most of those in bad jobs did not. In short, the quality of your job closely relates to the quality of your life.
Many factors likely underlie this stark reality, but it makes sense. How do you know if you like something if you’ve never done it? If students don’t actually do career-related work until college (when they are spending thousands of dollars and years of hard work to “do” it), we are setting our future workforce up for disappointment instead of positioning them to leverage the tremendous opportunities in STEM fields.
To combat this, career exposure must start very young. For example, I work as a civil engineer to build block towers with my four-year-old every week! Raising awareness of STEM careers need not be fancy. Every educator teaching STEM can easily turn virtually any lesson into a STEM career lesson with these simple steps:
Identify the content you will be teaching. Find one STEM career that connects to that content. Studying the water cycle? Hydrologist! Plate tectonics? Seismologist!
Deliver the lesson through the lens of the STEM career. When you start, focus on simply naming the career that relates to your content: “Today we will be working as entomologists to examine the mystery of peppered moths in England!” In this example, the teacher would use the word entomologist as much as possible during the lesson, raising awareness of the career and underscoring connections between the career and the content.
The purpose is not to make every student desire a particular career; it is to raise awareness of the vast array of existing STEM careers. In the example, students now know what an entomologist is and have been engaged in practices mirroring the work of real entomologists (finding patterns and analyzing data from a case study on peppered moths in England). Sparking interest in an entomology career would be a tremendous win, but it is not the actual goal.
The point of this approach is to increase relevance, which every good teacher knows also increases engagement. By naming a STEM career within every lesson, we automatically increase relevance because a connection has been made to the real world. Delivering content through the lens of a STEM career connects your content to a career that exists in real life. In 90 minutes or less, students learn about a new career, understand the basics of what that person does (because your lesson is linked to practices used in the real world), and grasp the point of the content because it has been connected to a profession in real life. In short, we have engaged students in STEM career exploration without adding extra work—just a new lens!
For students to truly gain “the skills to enter careers of their choice” as outlined in the Next Generation Science Standards, we must expose kids to STEM careers and have them engage in the practices of real STEM professionals early on. If every lesson was a STEM career lesson, imagine the thousands of careers you would be exposed to over your educational career! Try the STEM career lens to expose your students to many different careers, help them determine their interests and abilities, and connect them with career possibilities.
Ashley Pereira is a former middle and high school science teacher. She owns Career In STEM®, a provider of STEM career exploration resources, and she helps students prepare for STEM careers and turns schools into STEM pipelines. E-mail her at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared in the May 2020 issue of NSTA Reports, the member newspaper of the National Science Teaching Association. Read the full issue now.