When thinking about their childhood education, most Americans remember science and math as part of the curriculum. Science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) are integral for childhood education development. Yet, the STEM skills gap still exists today with more and more industries in need of STEM skill talent.
Ashley Szofer is senior director of communication and partnerships at STEMconnector, a professional services firm committed to increasing STEM-ready workers in the global talent pool. “We constantly hear from companies that they don’t have access to the talent that they need to be successful,” Szofer said. “If they’re looking at just hiring from traditional talent pools, then they’re not going to have the STEM talent they need to fill those positions because we know that more STEM jobs are opening than other careers. Industries need to get involved further down the pipeline simply so we can grow the STEM ecosystem as a whole.”
However, some organizations do see the problem, and not only are they working to address it, but they’re working to prepare young people for a better future workforce.
The Urban Libraries Council’s Partners for Middle School STEM initiative is part of a two-year project focused on building multisector community partnerships to increase STEM opportunities for low-income middle school youth. In March, the council convened leaders from 11 public library systems in Chicago to kick off pilot programs designed to engage students in STEM activities.
The initiative is meant to engage students outside the classroom and create an environment that is not necessarily structured but voluntary and fun for students so that they all have exposure to STEM opportunities.
“School creates real structure, but the library can be doing something in a complimentary way,” said ULC President and CEO Susan Benton. “With a little less structure, a child can learn to follow their interest paths and become more active in their learning in a way that will have them connect to what’s going on in their life. We know that particularly middle school students are at an ideal time to have more intensive exposure to STEM-related activities because that’s when their development helps them focus in a different way than they did in their primary school years, and they begin to think about career paths for themselves.”
ULC understands that some children in certain communities do not have the same opportunities as their affluent peers in wealthier neighborhoods. Recognizing that and building off relationships with schools, mayors, other libraries and local businesses, ULC wants to help support intentional STEM learning in public libraries regardless of where kids live, Benton said.
According to the “State of STEM” report conducted by STEMconnector, demographic aspects that affect participation in STEM education and careers include race, ethnicity and an individual’s socioeconomic background. The gap based on income has widened, and the poorest students fall four years behind in academic performance, on average, compared with their wealthier peers, according to the same report.
Aside from demographic constraints, middle school students are the target age because many of them start to develop an active curiosity for learning that they carry into high school.
However, students begin to lose interest in STEM early. Another study conducted by STEMconnector found that while two-thirds of fourth graders are interested in STEM, that number drops to half by eighth grade, and by their last year in high school, that number drops to only one-third of students.
“We know that a lot of that is driven by access to STEM learning opportunities both in the classroom and in the community,” said Erin White, senior director of product development and research at STEMconnector. “We know that we lose students along the way as far as interest; we also know there is a loss of best practices to help improve student interest and proficiency in STEM. It’s just about getting those opportunities in the hands of our young people.”
With positions across America needing to be filled by candidates proficient in STEM, companies don’t have access to the talent they need to be successful today. Many jobs today require STEM knowledge, but the overall STEM ability of the average K-12 student does not meet the required STEM skills in the U.S. labor market.
“One of the things we say here at STEMconnector a lot is that we need to prepare kids for an adaptable workforce — they need the problem-solving skills and the creativity to approach new challenges,” Szofer said. “It’s really about people being able to adapt to the new skills and technologies as they come out and that means investing further down the pipeline so young people are ready for those careers. It’s an industry imperative, not just an altruistic pursuit. It’s something that they will not be able to sustain if they do not invest further.”
Initiatives like ULC’s are doing their part to prepare students for careers today and tomorrow. The Hartford Public Library in Connecticut is one of ULC’s partners bringing more STEM opportunities to kids in underserved communities. The library highlights its STEM Lab on the Go outreach project, which is a mobile lab that brings equipment and programming to different community locations where students can gather and engage in STEM experiments. These opportunities are available on the weekends and during after-school school hours, meant to complement and support students’ formal learning.
“For us, this initiative is really part of the library being a support system for formal education,” said Bridget Quinn-Carey, CEO of Hartford Public Library. “We do it informally, but it also makes sure that the students have exposure to these kinds of technologies in a way that gets them excited and makes them want to pursue it and doesn’t make it feel like it’s out of reach for them. That’s what’s really needed because every kid deserves the opportunity to be excited by STEM fields and encouraged to pursue them if it’s something that they love.”
“The thing that excites me the most is that because of this initiative, there are strong partnerships that will really serve the kids in their communities well,” Benton said. “We are at risk of leaving too many people behind in this country at a time when we need all hands on deck for a new economy, so I’m excited that we’ll be creating partnerships that will help more of our kids find their way forward into being a productive part of our economy.”