Who are the Next Generation’s Leaders in STEM?

Featured in HuffpostTech article
In the next five years, STEM jobs are projected to grow twice as quickly as jobs in all other fields according to the U.S. Bureau of Statistics. While all jobs are expected to grow by 10.4 percent, STEM jobs are expected to increase by 21.4 percent. Similarly, 80 percent of jobs in the next decade will require technical skills.

By this measure, future STEM jobs represent a huge opportunity to today’s students. But to put these numbers into perspective, of the 3.8 million ninth graders in the U.S., only 233,000 end up choosing a STEM degree in college, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. This means only 6 percent of ninth graders will become STEM graduates. And of these graduates, women will be even more underrepresented in most STEM fields.

These are alarming statistics. How do we get more young boys and girls to be interested in STEM-related fields? It isn’t an easy task. Schools do not always adequately prepare students for these rigorous subjects, and college programs are designed to weed out the less persistent. Nationally, only 41 percent of initial White and Asian American STEM majors who begin a degree in STEM-related fields complete their degree in less than six years.

In addition, societal pressures continue to loom over girls who might otherwise consider the STEM fields. A couple of years ago, I met amazing parents, both of whom had a background in engineering and hoped their 10 year-old daughter would follow in their footsteps. They encouraged her to take an after school science/robotics program. When she got there, she found she was outnumbered 6:1 by boys in the class. As the only girl, she came home crying much of the time because she was teased and told that geeky girls are not welcome in the boys’ club. Ironically, by the time young adults are entering college programs in STEM fields, many complain about the lack of gender diversity.

Starting at an early age, even as young as kindergarten, we need to recruit, encourage and mentor the next generation leaders to consider pursuing science, computing, math and technology. And continue to mentor them through the grade school, high school and college years.

We also need to realize that for young girls to be inspired to pursue and stick with this educational path and later career field, they will benefit from the ongoing and collaborative support of the people that surround them: parents, teachers, friends and family members. Creating a fun and positive environment for these young promising STEM leaders will be key in order to get them interested in the first place and stay interested as they grow up.

Helping today’s students may begin in part with educating the educators and increasing rigor within our schools. Holding schools accountable to help teachers teach these subjects more effectively and structuring support for STEM pursuits is one way to help shift the dynamic away from subtle and overt discouragement to an atmosphere of encouragement and support.

Now more than ever, it’s important to help kids embrace the coolness factor of “geeky girls.” Challenging young kids of both genders to be interested in the technology field now through school activities or other mentorship programs will shape and mold our next generation of innovators and leaders in STEM tomorrow. Collectively, if we all agree having these sharp and original minds in the workforce is important both for our future and theirs, we can all take steps to encourage a young person to succeed in STEM.

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