When we refer to STEM, it’s not just coding and lab coats. It’s the underpinning of manufacturing, food production, health care, and so much more that frankly, we might take for granted, but surely can’t live without.
What is STEM education?
STEM education refers to the integrated teaching and learning of the subjects science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. STEM education is usually presented through hands-on and relevant real-world learning experiences.
Why is STEM important?
STEM is important because our world depends on it. The economy, our general well-being—it’s all backed by science, technology, engineering, and math.
You might be wondering then, if STEM is so important, so necessary, then why do we have to keep talking about it? You might be saying, “This is the 25th blog post you’ve written that features “STEM” in the title…we get it, STEM is important, so let’s move on.“
And therein lies the rub. The collective “we” haven’t yet “gotten it.”
If we had, then there wouldn’t 2.4 million STEM jobs projected to go unfilled this year. There wouldn’t be a severe underrepresentation of women in STEM fields. There wouldn’t be just as much of an underrepresentation of minorities. (Here are a few STEM education stats that tell quite the story.)
There wouldn’t be the need to constantly put STEM in the spotlight or on proving grounds, or in this 26th STEM-related blog post if these massive gaps didn’t exist.
But they do. And have for years. So here we are.
A lack of STEM education is to blame, but let me explain.
Why is STEM education important?
To start, consider this:
We need to first educate in order to educate.
I’m not trying to be cute or clever. But in the process of writing this post, I realized there are two different forms of “STEM education” we need to be talking about here:
“STEM education” with regards to students in school, and the teaching of STEM in the classroom, but also, a STEM education in terms of you, me, parents, teachers; all of us learning more, and becoming more educated on the importance of STEM.
Why have I just put your brain in a pretzel? It’s not intentional by any means.
The point I’m trying to make is that if we aren’t educated on the importance of STEM, we won’t push our kids to become educated in STEM.
So, how about some STEM education?
I mean, the second type of STEM education that I was just talking about. The kind where we learn more ourselves about what STEM is and what it means for the future of our children, so that we can then provide a better STEM education for them.
First, let’s talk about STEM jobs
STEM jobs pay very well. The median earning for all non-STEM jobs in the country is $19.30/hour. The average median hourly wage for STEM jobs? $38.85. Some quick math says STEM jobs pay $19.55, or about 99% more than all others. Tech giants are going to extremes to pay for this scarce talent.
STEM jobs are also abundant and growing. The thing about STEM is that it never sleeps. It won’t reach a point and just stop being important. It won’t stop evolving.
We’ve repeated a version of this same “there will be x amount of STEM jobs by 2018” stat for years. I can’t even believe it is already 2019 sometimes because that stat has forced me to feel 2018 is so far in the future versus being a year in the past.
But we are here now, and while the figure could still hold true, there is another wrinkle.
Back in 2013, “1.2 million” vacant STEM jobs felt like a very large number. That figure eventually evolved into the “2.4 million” that we reference now, which is obviously an even greater number.
So why does it keep growing?
Well for one, filling the vacancies is still an issue, but two, it’s because STEM itself can’t stop, won’t stop growing.
Specifically, the umbrella under which all of these STEM jobs fall keeps expanding. AI and machine learning? Cybersecurity? Sure these were “things” back in 2013, but they are much bigger things now.
Tencent, the massive Chinese tech conglomerate, reported there are 300,000 AI researchers and practitioners in the world (cue my reaction: Wow!). But, the market demand for such roles is “millions” (cue my updated reaction: WOW!).
STEM and innovation go hand in hand. So while this might be the latest STEM job vacancy multiplier, it surely won’t be the last. It’s not out of the question to think that kids will be working jobs we haven’t even dreamed of.
STEM jobs are interesting. What makes a job interesting? Some would argue money (Did I mention STEM jobs pay well?), while others would say subject matter (Driverless cars don’t build themselves...wait, or do they?).
Whichever way you paint it, STEM jobs are among the most interesting in the world. I can’t even begin to scratch the surface here, but start researching STEM jobs, futuristic STEM jobs, cool STEM jobs, and you’ll soon be wondering where your day went.
Here are a few resources to get you started:
- Mashable: 10 Amazing Jobs You Could Land With the Right STEM Education
- Career Builder: Cool STEM Jobs That Will Put You in Demand
- STEMWorks: Cool STEM Jobs Resource Center
- iD Tech: STEM Trends for 2020
Now, let’s talk about early childhood learning
I love baseball. Why? Because it was introduced to me at a very young age, and going to games was a regular weekend activity for me and my family. The sport easily seeped into my interests, driving me to play for years, collect cards as a hobby, and now obsess over it as a fan.
Each and every one of us can probably undergo the same exercise of looking at our interests now as adults, or the areas in which we are skilled and excel, and trace it all back to early childhood memories.
So, we shouldn’t be too shocked when researchers discover a powerful link between STEM and early childhood; and that by learning STEM skills early on, children are better prepared for school and future careers (that is, all careers, not just those in STEM, thanks to math skills being found as powerful predictors of later learning).
Similarly, on a podcast, Indra Nooyi, CEO of Pepsi, had this to say:
"One of the things that my experience has taught me is that if you are trained as a scientist in your youth - through your high school and college - if you stay with the STEM disciplines, you can learn pretty much all of the subjects as you move along in life. And your scientific disciplines play a very important role, and ground you very well as you move into positions of higher and higher authority, whatever the job is.
It’s very hard to learn science later on in life. One of the pleas I would have for most young people today is, 'stay with STEM as long as you can.'"
What is it about early childhood that helps things “stick”?
Most of us can agree that children are innately curious—in an environment where everything is brand new, how can they not be?
Thus, they crave exploration and discovery; picking things up, putting things down, asking why; tasting, smelling, and intently watching anything that might wander across their line of sight. Everything is new, everything must be analyzed.
The key is, there must be input for there to be output.
Unless those inquisitive needs are met with things to play with and explore, that unbridled curiosity will either fade or simply won’t reach max levels.
I’m not saying kids need to put their bottles down to free their hands for laptop time, but rather, we must simply give them the resources that feed their curiosity. Growing fruits and vegetables in a garden, building forts, and playing with blocks can all be uniquely valuable.
As this Common Sense Education article states, “...exposure to more spatial language during block play in infancy and early childhood increases children’s spatial abilities when they’re older.”
What’s important here is the structure that goes along with the activity.
Such guidance assists in helping children draw conclusions, make connections, and discover deeper meanings with the things they’re delving into.
Going back to my personal example, I was first introduced to baseball as only a spectator, which fed my curiosity. But, I was also given the opportunity to pursue it tangibly, in a structured setting, through little league, summer camps, and other organized activities.
Had I only been exposed to baseball by watching, the love and appreciation I have for the game would have only amounted to a fraction of what it is now. The hands-on nature of learning and experiencing the mechanics, strategy, teamwork, and competition lying beneath the surface are the things that really drove my lifelong interest.
Really, you can apply such reasoning of young mind + activity = better familiarity with that activity and increased probability of an interest sticking for years to come.
There are no preconceived notions or stereotypes that can get in a child's way of wanting to explore what is put in front of them. They aren’t afraid of failure. Nothing is too challenging.
With girls specifically, introducing STEM before they have a chance to hear all about what is or isn’t “for girls” while robots, math, and other things are “for boys” can only improve the odds of them developing a STEM interest.
At the end of the day, it’s never too late, but it seems to be much better to be early.
Let’s talk about STEM activities & opportunities
For those eager to learn something new, we live in a great age. Information on any subject imaginable is literally at your fingertips.
Unfortunately, the place where many spend their time for learning—school—isn’t quite yet where it needs to be in terms of equipping students with STEM skills. In fact, only one-quarter of all K-12 schools in the U.S. offer computer science and coding classes.
The tough thing is, each school faces its own unique challenges, with some unable to take on the increased costs of incorporating STEM into the classroom. Even if they are, many will have trouble keeping resources up to date and relevant with such an ever-changing landscape.
Other institutions might have trouble filling a teaching staff with those qualified or confident enough to lead STEM curriculum. And speaking of curriculum, there are many standards teachers need to be aiming to meet with traditional, core subjects—leaving little to no time for new STEM lesson plans.
Even in a perfect world (one where STEM was taught in every classroom) would there be enough project-based learning, or would it still be largely lecture? Could the learning be personalized to student needs and learning levels? To really make an impact, learning should be associated with already-established student interests.
Regardless of the situation in the classroom, nothing should really be learned in a vacuum. In sports, you play for your high school team, but you might also play for a club team; you might still go to summer camps, attend specialized academies, and even have a personal coach who you work with for a period of time.
STEM shouldn’t really be any different.
Most communities are now fortunate to have local programs at nearby libraries or museums that feature STEM activities, and there are a ton of regional and national STEM competitions in which most can take part. Here is a list of a few of our favorite destinations. (Even if they aren’t in your neighborhood, they might give you some ideas on where to start your research.)
After-school STEM programs and camps also offer a more in-depth learning experience; with structured programs focused on building specific skills.
Honestly, you don’t even have to leave the house:
- Build your own maker station at home
- Head to the kitchen for a science experiment
- Embark on a geology scavenger hunt
- Try an online course
- And so much more!
Spring Break will also be coming back around shortly after the new year (believe it or not), so consult our guide of last-minute STEM activities if you’re feeling stuck.
Let’s talk about where to go from here
I think first and foremost, let’s breath.
As a new parent myself, I can see and feel how this all can morph into one giant, overwhelming ball speeding towards you as you try to figure out your next move!
In the end, we should feel good about one thing. Opportunity.
There is no shortage of STEM opportunity for our children and those who follow—not only in the sheer number of available, pure STEM jobs, but also in the many other things in which STEM plays at least a small part.
I mean, AI and Machine Learning? Sure, I knew they were relevant topics given our virtual summer camps and on-campus after-school course lineup, but I can’t say I would have had the same knowledge on just how in-demand those skills were if I wasn’t a part of the iD Tech family.
So, it’s up to us to keep educating ourselves so that we can educate others. It’s only with such knowledge that we can then tap into our children's’ interests and successfully introduce STEM in ways that are structured, memorable, and impactful.