Preparing Kids for Tomorrow’s Jobs
U.S. Companies Pair Scientists with Schools
Career opportunities in science, technology, engineering and math are projected to grow 70 percent faster than other occupations—with 2.4 million job openings in those fields during the next six years.
That’s great news for tomorrow’s job-seekers. Yet, most American youth are matriculating out of the country’s schools ill-equipped to compete for these high-tech, high-wage jobs; among developed nations, U.S. high school students currently rank 23rd in science and 31st in mathematics. Now, hundreds of schools are working to better prepare students by harnessing outside resources to reinvigorate science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) curricula in classrooms and afterschool programs.
Forget rote memorization of the periodic table of the elements that previous generations may equate with science class. Kids in STEM programs are designing video games, programming robots and building solar cars— fun, hands-on, practical projects that add zest to technical subjects. The extra excitement helps, because many STEM programs extend the school day, either as a mandatory late-day module or an optional afterschool session.
Psyched about Science
Kids like Camerino Sanchez-Park can’t get enough. “Robotics helped me learn a lot about science and batterypowered objects and engines,” says this fifth-grader at Faller Elementary School, in Ridgecrest, California. “The best part was working with the cool, high-tech robots. I would definitely do it again!”
Sanchez-Park is one of 87 youths psyched about science as a result of hands-on afterschool programs run by a local nonprofit, High Desert Leapin’ Lizards. It taps the brainpower of scientists and engineers from a nearby naval base to instruct in subjects like renewable energy, chemistry and robotics. Rather than focusing on abstract concepts, students create working windmills or robots capable of tackling obstacle courses.
“It not only sparks an interest in science, it teaches them how to think like a scientist,” says Program Administrator Sandra Goldstein Birmingham. “For example, the kids maintain an engineering journal of the challenges they experienced, to help them troubleshoot the next time.”
Leapin’ Lizards is one of 34 STEM programs nationwide awarded funding through the 2011 Ashoka Changemakers’ Partnering for Excellence competition, backed by U.S. corporate heavyweights like Google, ExxonMobil and Amgen. Many participating companies are investing in STEM school programming to fill the pipeline of homegrown talent for potential future hires.
Citizens Off the Sidelines
Another Ashoka winner, Citizen Schools, sees the challenge as a supplyand-demand problem that includes a lack of teachers trained to meet the current needs for STEM education. Consider, though, the 10 million professionals currently working in related fields, and Americans have a system-wide solution. “If we can put just 1 percent of them in the classroom, we could more than double the math and science teachers in the country,” advises Managing Director John Werner.
Citizen Schools recruits corporate volunteers from the ranks of top technology, architecture, finance and other fields to lead afterschool “apprenticeships” for disadvantaged kids in public middle schools. Participating states include California, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Massachusetts and Texas.
Google has provided some 350 volunteers, plus a recent $3.25 million grant to expand Citizen Schools activities in three state programs. Its employees supply an appealing bridge from academics to up-and-coming careers, teaching kids marketable skills like website design, cell phone marketing and computer programming.
Collaborating on real-life problems in small groups develops more than tangible skills, attests Marianne DeModena. Her sixth grade son, Christian Deguglielmo, completed apprenticeships with Google at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and with investment advisors Cambridge Associates, both in Boston.
“Christian came home a different kid,” says DeModena. “It’s brought out his leadership abilities, school pride, social skills and confidence… it’s really opened up this other side of him. He says Citizen Schools is his favorite subject.”
The program’s success is more than anecdotal: A longitudinal study by Policy Studies Associates, Inc. found that kids enrolled in Citizen Schools afterschool programs significantly outperformed a comparison group on a range of indicators, including school attendance, proficiency test scores and graduation rate.
Gateway to the Stars
Howard University Middle School of Mathematics and Science, or (MS)², taps into higher institutions of learning as another rich source of STEM prowess. Founded in 2005, the Washington, D.C., public charter school is located at the university, one of the nation’s preeminent historically black colleges. Every (MS)² classroom includes at least one undergraduate teaching assistant, providing youths with collegiate role models in STEM fields, while giving university students an opportunity to test their teaching skills.
The school also partners with NASA, which pairs its engineers with teachers for professional development, and sponsors rigorous student workshops in astronautics at its Goddard Space Flight Center, in Greenbelt, Maryland. The collaboration gives students a scientific leg up while broadening their career possibilities.
“Employees within the space program range from botanists to ballet dancers, all necessary in helping to get astronauts ready for takeoff,” says Yohance Maqubela, executive director of (MS)². He recognizes that not every student will end up pursuing a career in a STEM field, but that science and technology will permeate whatever discipline they choose.
Above all, STEM curricula are designed to address one of the most frequently asked student questions: “Why am I learning this?” By making learning more relevant, these programs are helping kids stay motivated, think critically about their surroundings and connect the dots so they see the big picture. It’s a mindset that will serve them well, wherever life leads them.
April Thompson is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C. Connect at AprilWrites.com.