Planning a STEM Career Conference
The community surrounding your school is rich with resources to support your curriculum and your students. Inviting guest speakers can help connect the relevancy of your course to local community initiatives, begin long-term partnerships, and provide students with STEM role models. Being exposed to diverse role models is particularly important for minoritized populations that continue to be underrepresented in STEM fields. Previous studies have found that introducing students to STEM careers can increase their interest in pursuing STEM pathways (Blotnicky et al. 2018). Traditionally, career engagement has focused on the high school years, but research has suggested that students start developing career identities much earlier (Tai et al. 2006). Establishing a STEM Career Conference is one way to network with the community and help students to begin thinking about potential careers. Coordinating these experiences can be approached in a systematic way (see Figure 1 in Supplemental Materials) to ensure a positive experience for students, teachers, and speakers.
An interdisciplinary approach to the conference can help students see the types of knowledge and skills necessary for college and careers. Although STEM-specific subject knowledge is the focus of the day, many other content areas can find connections to the skills and habits of mind required for the workforce of tomorrow. All careers require integration of knowledge, skills, and processes across multiple fields. Experiences like these support student success in all content subjects and promote personal student growth.
Implementing a successful career conference relies on the work of a dedicated team of teachers and volunteers. The input of intervention specialists and support personnel are also crucial during initial planning. These teachers can suggest ways to help make the day a positive experience for students of all abilities at your school. The conference coordinator will also need to make sure to identify and meet any adaptive needs of the speakers and/or community members (see “STEM Career Conference Team roles” in box).
The next planning phase should involve exploring ways to connect with members of the STEM community that surrounds your school community. It’s never too early to start recruiting volunteers; some speakers might be reached through beginning-of-the-year surveys or even parent/guardian/back-to-school night. Parents and relatives of current and past students are often eager to share what they do with students. Your school Parent Teacher Organization, district career and technical education program, or nearby colleges and technical schools can also be ways to build speaker connections. In addition, the Chamber of Commerce and local business associations are typically in contact with organizations that have dedicated outreach specialists or a streamlined process for selecting speakers from within their organizations. If you have built a professional online social network, social media resources such as LinkedIn and Twitter can also be a valuable tool for networking. Finally, consider reaching out directly to local organizations to request speakers. Businesses might be looking for opportunities to serve the community, and partnering with your school could be mutually beneficial. An informational letter can be used as a tool to communicate the overall goals of the day, the time commitment, and a general description of potential speaking points (see “Speaker Recruiting Letter” in Supplemental Materials). When recruiting and selecting the final group of guest speakers, take care to ensure that there is wide racial, ethnic, gender, and linguistic diversity. Additionally, try to include professionals from a variety of STEM fields.
Speakers can be offered a variety of ways to participate in the conference. While it is most common to have guests physically visit the school, it is also possible to have speakers lead a session virtually. STEM professionals who cannot attend the day of the conference might also be willing to record presentations for student viewing. Research has shown that viewing videos of STEM professionals conducting career presentations is an effective way to increase student interest in STEM careers (Wyss, Heulskamp, and Siebert 2012). These sessions can be viewed asynchronously, or in the event that an in-person speaker cancels at the last minute, shown to students in place of a live session.
To ensure a successful conference, preparation is essential for both speakers and students. Expectations for the presentations should be communicated to speakers early so that they can plan accordingly. Community volunteer speakers want to share their passion for STEM but may need direction in how to do so. A letter confirming their acceptance to participate might also include suggestions for preparing their presentation, maintaining the interest of students, and time management (see “Tip Sheet for Speakers” in Supplemental Materials). A welcome packet, sent one week before the event, can include items such as directions to the school, directions for parking, check-in procedures, the schedule for the day, and other logistical and helpful reminders.
Many of your speakers might not be familiar with the developmental and learning needs of adolescents. First, the length of sessions should be managed so that the attention span of most students can be accommodated. Although the structure of individual sessions might vary, we suggest that speakers present for 10 to 15 minutes and allow 10 minutes for questions at the end of the session. Remind speakers to limit their use of technical field-specific language. Finally, presentations that encourage student participation and include props are very successful in keeping students engaged. In past years, several speakers brought “take-aways” for students. For example, an ecologist brought packets of starter seeds for students attending her session, while another speaker was had students walk through an ambulance as part of their presentation.
Work with the speakers to ensure that all presentations are safe and accessible for all students. Remind speakers to refer to the safety guidelines provided in the welcome packet, especially if their talk will include props. Ask for a list of materials that will be used during any demonstrations. All planned demonstrations and activities should be reviewed and approved by the equipment and safety supervisor in advance of the event day (see “Speaker Response Sheet” in Supplemental Materials; see also link to NSTA Minimum Safety Practices and Regulations for In-Person and Virtual Sessions in Online Resources).
Students should also be prepared prior to the conference. To set the stage for this event, science teachers dedicate class time to introducing students to the purposes and activities of professional conferences. Scheduling is completed in class. On scheduling day teachers provide a brief overview of each session, which is a summary of the presentation provided by the speaker. These summaries were then inputted into a document that the students could reference as they selected their conference day schedule via Google forms. Each student indicated their preferred conference schedule based on the concurrent sessions. Sessions were capped at 25 students.
To assist students in getting the most out of the presentations, background research about the organization or profession is encouraged. Students can use resources such as the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics website (see Online Resources) to explore education level requirements, work environments, and brief job descriptions. Based on their research, students can brainstorm possible questions for the speakers. Many students are curious about the details of the daily professional activities involved in STEM careers. These questions can be submitted to the science teacher for approval prior to the conference. Be sure students record them in a place that will be easily accessible on conference day. Finally, students should also be reminded about appropriate question etiquette and behavior expectations. (Speakers may also need reminders to silence their devices as they are used to being in traditional workspaces, rather than classrooms.)
The day of the conference can be hectic, and it is advised to have a team of teachers and student volunteers to help the day go smoothly (see “STEM Career Conference Team Roles” in Supplemental Materials). Speakers should be notified ahead of time about parking and check-in procedures. Be sure to follow all guest policies for your school/district; this might include checking in at the front desk with a government-issued ID or making sure the presenter is accompanied at all times. Staging a hospitality area where guest speakers can relax, hydrate, and snack can help you greet presenters, put them at ease, and give them an opportunity to ask last-minute questions. Administrators also found this a useful time to be able to welcome the speakers. Each guest was escorted to their conference room by a student volunteer. These volunteers were students who had previously participated in the career conference. They were prepared for their duties during an orientation session explaining their roles as building ambassadors, the schedule for the day, and where sessions would be located.
Once in the classroom, one of the biggest difficulties on conference day can be technology. It helps to have teachers assist presenters in setting up, or to have a staff member dedicated to floating among classrooms to help. Make it a priority to check in with speakers as they are setting up to ensure that the presentations will be safe and accessible for all students.
To minimize confusion, students should be given a copy of their schedules the day before the conference (see Figure 2 in Supplemental Materials). We printed a paper schedule for each student and encouraged students to use one side for note-taking. Active listening reminders can also be printed on this sheet.
Debriefing is an important part of the conference experience. Students should be given the opportunity to reflect on the presentations (see Figure 3). Reflective conversations revealed that many students found the conference to be a positive experience that sparked their interest in STEM careers. They mentioned that they were previously unaware of STEM career options outside of traditional roles such as scientist, engineer, and doctor. Several students also made comments that linked the practices of the STEM professionals to the NGSS Science and Engineering Practices (NGSS Lead States 2013).
It can be useful to put students who heard from the same presenters in small groups to create posters about the presentations. These posters might contain a summary of the presentation, particular highlights, what they learned, curricular connections, and questions for future research. Posters can be shared with students who did not get to hear from all the speakers. These visuals can also be posted in your room to remind students of the ways STEM careers connect to the curriculum and to their own practice as scientists. Students should also write thank-you notes to acknowledge the volunteer presenters. Collaborating with the English Language Arts Department, we were able to provide students with a template for creating their letters (see Figure 4).
Feedback from students and presenters is a valuable source of information for making decisions about the future of the conference. We used a Google form to have students evaluate the speakers and give open comments about the presentations. A Google form was also sent to the presenters to gather information about their experiences prior to and during the event. For example, speakers were asked to evaluate their experience with the organization of the day and if they received appropriate support in preparing their presentations.
STEM Career Conference day can also establish long-term learning opportunities for your students. Many engaging presenters have been invited to return in subsequent years. Also, after the initial visit and event, several presenters expressed interest in supporting the curriculum by serving as consultants around particular topics. Field trips to select organizations that attended the conference may become more accessible and fees may be waived. Finally, community partners might be able to provide service-learning opportunities for entire classes or individual students. The STEM Career Conference can be the catalyst for building sustained relationships with the members of your community. •
STEM Career Conference Team Roles—
NSTA Minimum Safety Practices and Regulations for In-Person and Virtual Sessions—https://static.nsta.org/pdfs/MinimumSafetyPracticesAndRegulations.pdf
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook—https://www.bls.gov/ooh/
Sarah Redick (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Teaching and Learning at The Ohio State University in Columbus and a former middle school science teacher. Mandy McCormick Smith is the Director of Research at the PAST Foundation, a STEM education nonprofit, and a former K–12 classroom science teacher.
Blotnicky, K.A., T. Franz-Odendaal, F. French, and P. Joy. 2018. A study of the correlation between STEM career knowledge, mathematics self-efficacy, career interests, and career activities on the likelihood of pursuing a STEM career among middle school students. International Journal of STEM Education 5 (1): 1–15.
NGSS Lead States. 2013. Next Generation Science Standards (Appendix F—Science and Engineering Practices in the NGSS). Washington, DC: National Academies Press. https://www.nextgenscience.org/resources/ngss-appendices
Tai, R., C. Liu, C., A. Maltese, and X. Fan. 2006. Planning early for careers in science. Science 312 (5777): 1143–1144.
Wyss, V.L., D. Heulskamp, and C.J. Siebert. 2012. Increasing middle school student interest in STEM careers with videos of scientists. International Journal of Environmental and Science Education 7 (4): 501–522.