Early STEM Career Exploration

When we were kids we thought about future careers as a doctor or a lawyer or a teacher. Maybe we dreamed of being dancers or football players. Today, kids still think about those options, but they are quickly developing a growing knowledge of potential pathways to STEM careers.

This was apparent this week when I visited one of our elementary schools for Science Day. This annual event offers hands-on STEM learning that engages our students as they connect with educational partners and experts in the field. Students may think that creating explosions or racing robots is cool, but they also learn at an early age the content knowledge behind this type of learning. When we begin sharing STEM careers with students, their minds open to the possibilities in the future.

“I’m making slime”, a kindergartener proudly announces to me. She explains the different ingredients that she has mixed as she stirs and stirs waiting for the activator to firm up her concoction. She is elated that she has made this herself and excitedly chats with the student next to her.

I listen in as a first-grade group of students talk with a local university professor who brought in a 3-D printer as a demonstration tool. Students raise their hands enthusiastically with questions about 3-D printed car parts, shoes, and houses. He shares the ways that manufacturers are using 3-D printing to make their jobs more efficient.

A group of third-grade students are exploring circuits and creating mini LED flashlights with pre-service teachers from another local university. They are building their knowledge of science concepts and applying that knowledge through hands-on maker experiences. They talk to engineers from a local electricity company and learn about their work.

As we introduce students to STEM careers, we offer potential pathways to their future. We have students who want to be scientists when they grow up and explore solar energy. There are students who want to design solutions to ensure that their community has clean water. Students are building an understanding that if they learn to code, they can be a programmer or video game designer. Students understand that what they learn about in math is connected to what they learn in art. They learn that scientists need literacy skills to read complex texts and solve problems.

Every day we have students sitting in our classrooms dreaming about their futures. How do we equip them to imagine the potential pathways to STEM careers? 


Here are 3 ways that every school can provide early exploration into STEM careers:

STEM All Around- My sons are age five and seven. They are curious, science-minded learners. Part of that inquisitiveness comes from their school experience and part of it comes from home. I make an effort to call their attention to point out the STEM in everything. When we are building with Legos, we talk about the structure and how to make it strong. I explain that it’s the job of an engineer to learn about what gives buildings a strong foundation. When we tinker with science kits at home, we talk about the character traits of scientists and why that could be a job that might fit for them. A home in our neighborhood was recently having their driveway ripped up and new concrete laid. My son said, “Hey Mom, I bet there’s some STEM in what he’s doing!” I love that they notice that STEM is all around us. They see the need for science, technology, engineering, and math in their world.

We need to be mindful in our schools about pointing out STEM learning in our daily lives. Reinforcing when STEM is present in other subject areas and noting the STEM aspects in the work that people do is a simple way to show students that STEM is all around.

Connect with Experts- Part of Science Day included speakers from a variety of local business and organizations that focused on topics like engineering, robotics, chemistry, and math. Students had the opportunity to hear about the importance of the things they learn in school and how these directly relate to the work they may do in the future and counteracting the often-heard, “When am I ever going to use this in ‘real life’?

Connecting with experts can include face-to-face career talks, site visits, or Skype calls so that students can research potential careers and see that STEM jobs are a possibility for them. X-Ray technicians, artists, landscapers all need to know some STEM to do their work. Show students these potential careers path by connecting them with experts in the field. Bring in parents and community members to talk about the STEM within their jobs. Connect with industry professionals online —Nepris is a great online resource that facilitates virtual connections for educators and students.

Showcase Career Opportunities- If we want to prepare our students to be career and college ready, we need to increase awareness of what jobs may be possible in their future. Think about the ways that you can shine a light on STEM careers throughout your school. There are many ways to call attention to STEM learning: highlight careers on your morning announcements, display a bulletin board with STEM jobs or show career videos that relate to classroom content. Online tools like Defined Learning help teachers bring career-focused learning to the classroom by providing an online library of videos and projects that at based on situations in STEM careers. Showcasing career opportunities isn’t just the responsibility of the high school guidance counselor —we can all contribute to building an understanding of career opportunities for our students.

Early exposure to STEM careers gives students the chance to imagine what is possible. Creating opportunities with your classroom or school to look at different jobs and pointing out the STEM learning behind it is an important step to ensuring that our students are future-ready. Find ways throughout the building to highlight careers, but don’t wait until students hit the teenage years to do it. Students in elementary grades need to see STEM careers as exciting opportunities for them. Connect them with STEM experts in the field and equip them to understand that STEM is all around them. It is a field that will continue to grow and should be seen as a pathway for every learner.

About the Author: 
Dr. Jacie Maslyk is an Assistant Superintendent focusing on curriculum, instruction, and professional learning. She has served in public school as a classroom teacher, reading specialist, elementary principal, and Director of Elementary Education over the last 22 years. She is passionate about STEM education and is the author of STEAM Makers: Fostering Creativity and Innovation in the Elementary Classroom. You can contact Jacie through her website at steam-makers.com.


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