Imagine learning to create algorithms for better music playlists, or prototyping and manufacturing a new running shoe—at the age of twelve. Traditionally, training for careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) has focused on college students. But if our goal is to encourage more students to pursue STEM-related careers, research shows that STEM career training should start much earlier—ideally in middle school. Here’s why.
Academic Interest Often Wanes in Middle School
Middle school can be a tumultuous time for students, when social priorities outweigh academic ones. Unfortunately, students who form negative of opinions of math and science often retain those biases—permanently. According to a 2008 study commissioned by the Australian Department of Education, by the time students reach high school, many view science as “uninteresting, unimportant, and irrelevant to their lives.” But programs in middle school that help “connect the dots” between STEM and real life make science and math feel relevant for kids, keeping them engaged and interested.
Career Aspirations Begin in Middle School
Paradoxically, while academic interest often wanes in the middle-school years, these students are already forming serious opinions about future career paths. Exposure to STEM careers during this time triggers students to seriously consider jobs in engineering, technology, manufacturing, biology, etc. Many perhaps looking at these career possibilities for the first time. These aspirations inform critical future choices—such as choosing STEM classes in high school, or even applying to STEM-centered magnet schools. Yet these small decisions are what lead to adult careers in STEM fields.
STEM Training Teaches Problem Solving
Not every student who studies STEM in middle school will pursue a STEM-related career, but the skills they gain can be applied to any field. This is especially critical in a world where employers value problem solving and critical thinking abilities over college majors, according to new research from the Association of American Colleges and Universities. Since STEM programs specifically hone analytical reasoning and problem solving, all students stand to benefit from learning these valuable skills.
Early STEM Career Training Helps Close the Gender Gap
According to the National Girls Collaborative Project, women make up half of the total U.S. college-educated workforce but comprise only 29 percent of the science and engineering workforce—despite the fact that boys and girls perform equally in STEM education. In order to close this gap, early intervention must be implemented to remedy gender-specific stereotypes. Exposing girls to STEM career education—early on—prevents girls from feeling shut out of STEM careers and empowers them to consider career paths that might otherwise feel unachievable.
STEM Education Facilitates Hands-On Learning
Engaging, hands-on learning is critical to reaching middle-school students—and, done right, STEM education is the perfect vehicle. Instead of suffering boredom during long lectures, students should be inspired to fully engage in projects: conducting experiments, making decisions, and learning through trial and error. And by exposing students to STEM through interactive, kid-centric programs, like EVERFI’s Endeavor platform, teachers can transform sometimes-intimidating material into memorable learning experiences.
In today’s technology-driven world, more than half of all students will be expected to use STEM as part of their future careers. Providing them with both exposure and career training is a must. The earlier that training begins, the more likely that students will understand and consider STEM careers and be empowered with the skillsets to succeed professionally—wherever their adult lives take them.