The number of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) jobs grew at three times the rate of non-STEM positions between 2000 and 2010, and as of 2018, 2.4 million STEM jobs remain open because there aren’t enough qualified workers to fill them. Additionally, while women make up half of the American population, they hold only 28 percent of STEM jobs. People of color are even more disproportionately represented: 2.2 percent of Latinos, 2.7 percent of African Americans, and 3.3 percent of Native Americans/Alaskan Natives hold a university degree in a STEM field, according to data from the Smithsonian Science Education Center.
While our pipeline of talent extends from preschool through college, lack of access to STEM programs, income disparity, not enough qualified STEM teachers, and parents’ lack of knowledge about STEM programs are a few of the issues derailing a wealth of STEM potential. By not providing better access from an early age to all students—regardless of socioeconomic standing, gender, or race—we are blocking the American economy from expanding in much-needed fields such as engineering, computer science, and medicine. We are denying specific groups access to high-paying jobs (especially African Americans and students from low-income families), and, therefore, failing to tap a huge well of unrealized STEM talent.
More than one million children throughout the U.S. rank in the top 25 percent of their class academically when they start school, even though they come from families that live at or below the poverty line. By the end of fifth grade, that number has dropped by half, and these children are twice as likely to drop out of high school compared to their middle class, same-ability peers. While low-income students have the same potential to pursue STEM careers, their family’s low socioeconomic status means the deck is stacked against them, and educators are missing an opportunity to improve STEM outcomes for children who come from these underrepresented and under-resourced communities.
I believe we need to start working with children in STEM subjects from a very early age, especially those from low-income households. Children as young as four can design and conduct simple experiments such as determining whether water or light is more important to a plant. By starting young, children become more likely to be introduced to STEM-related fields they otherwise would not learn about in their day-to-day lives. Instead of only talking about becoming a professional athlete, for example, we should teach our children about becoming engineers, computer programmers, scientists, and doctors.
Teachers can be instrumental in introducing STEM careers to children from low-income households, as can providers caring for children in after-school programs. Children who come from impoverished areas often have fewer resources available to them at school, and after-school or summertime programs can help fill this gap. I have helped start several Junior FIRST LEGO League teams at impoverished schools, which engage young children in real-world problem-solving activities by using robotics to create working solutions to existing problems, just like STEM workers do.
Connecting with these children in after-school programs also allows access to their parents, who can be integral to keeping them in the STEM pipeline. When parents learn about the STEM opportunities available to their children, they are more likely to become advocates and ensure their children pursue advanced science and math coursework into secondary school and beyond. Parents can work with their children’s school to keep students engaged in STEM subjects and to help them understand that a college education is accessible, especially considering the large number of grants and scholarships available to low-income families. When working with families, I’ve found that providing dinner, childcare, and personal invitations through phone calls or other means brings higher attendance at parent workshops, which should be frequent, goal-driven, and build forward momentum.
The untapped potential of bright and talented students who are left behind from STEM education due to their low-income status, gender, and race means there is much we could do to increase the number of students pursuing STEM subjects in school and beyond. Starting early, providing non-traditional, engaging educational opportunities, and getting parents involved, are key aspects to doing so. Children have the potential to become STEM innovators regardless of socioeconomic status, gender, or race, and educators can be integral in ensuring their talents and potential aren’t overlooked in STEM talent development.
Steve Coxon, PhD, is associate professor and executive director of the Center for Access and Achievement (CA2) in the School of Education at Maryville University. CA2 focuses on partnerships with schools and nonprofits to prepare pre-collegiate students for college and the careers of the future through STEM education. CA2 oversees the Maryville Science and Robotics Program, STEM Education Certificate and Gifted Education Certificate programs, Maryville Young Scholars Program to increase gifted program diversity, CREST-M math and robotics curricula project, STEM Sprouts for preschool, Coding Creators with the Boys and Girls Clubs, Cyber Ready St. Louis for high school students, and Coding Camp for secondary students.
Dr. Coxon has given more than 100 presentations and is the author of more than 50 publications focused on STEM education and talent development, including the book Serving Visual-Spatial Learners. In 2014, the Missouri Commissioner of Education appointed Steve to a four-year term on the Advisory Council on the Education of Gifted and Talented Children to advise the state on policy related to the education of gifted students. He was appointed to another four-year term as chair in 2018. He was the 2010 recipient of the Joyce VanTassel-Baska Award for Excellence in Gifted Education.
Dr. Coxon earned his PhD from the College of William and Mary in educational policy, planning, and leadership. He holds an MA in secondary curriculum and instruction and a BA in English and biology from Virginia Tech.