Inspiring the next STEM leaders

Recent grads with a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math)-related degree can earn twice as much as their fellow students, according to a recent Payscale report, so why is it so tough to get students interested in pursuing STEM fields? Wellesley High School is looking at that very issue. Today, I had the pleasure of talking with the school district’s director of curriculum and instruction Dr. Dean Blase, who led an in-depth study into STEM project-based learning.

CWL: What opportunities do you see for students who earn their degree in STEM fields?

DB: There are enormous opportunities for students. 60 percent of new career opportunities over the next 20 years are slated to be in STEM-related fields.

CWL: Why do you think students aren’t jumping on these opportunities?

 DB: There’s an inspiration gap. One of the ironies is that students here in Massachusetts perform better than any other state and among the best in the world in STEM-related subjects, yet the number of Massachusetts students choosing to earn their degree in these fields is low.

One of the big misconceptions they have is that they’ll be sitting in a lab by themselves, but there’s a vast scope of work they can do within STEM businesses and nonprofits, whether they’re designing innovative products or helping to advance medicine. We’re working to make connections more explicit for students. The more models kids have for seeing what life after college can look like, the better.

CWL: How can educators help students to realize these possibilities?

 DB: Give students hands-on opportunities in these fields. Those are the critical points where we see students getting inspired. When students go out and do field study, they’re wholly engaged in that work. Also, we know that when students study computer science in high school, they’re six to seven times more likely to do so in college, so giving students exposure these subjects in high school is very helpful.

CWL: Can you share what Wellesley is doing to get students interested in STEM?

DB: It’s a very bottom-up initiative. A group of parents came to us and wanted to beef up excitement about STEM in our schools and in town. They organized a Science & Technology Expo where students can meet scientists, learn about animation, examine their own DNA, build their own satellite, and more. A former NASA astronaut, a climate change leader, and the winner of the Lemelson-MIT Student Prize for Invention are among the speakers.

They took it upon themselves to organize an incredible event to bring together speakers and hands-on workshops to encourage students to explore STEM. It is truly a gift to the whole community.

CWL: What would you like students who are considering a STEM field to know?

DB: They can find a lot of heart in STEM fields. They’re not going to be a single scientist working alone I’ve been in every major company and nonprofit in Cambridge, and they’re incredibly vibrant places to work. People are collaborating and producing really cool stuff.

My best advice is to get your hands dirty. Have fun exploring how math and science connect together. Rip apart a phone and see how it works. Figure things out instead of just writing about a topic.

CWL: How about students who want to do something good for their community? Are there many opportunities for students with STEM degrees at nonprofit organizations?

DB: There are a lot of different ways students can contribute to society with an education in STEM fields. We’re seeing a great deal of invention and innovation taking place in nonprofits. There’s a lot of interdisciplinary work going on in engineering and biology. People are using this knowledge to save lives. For example, there’s a concentration of cancer research work underway that’s extremely exciting. Opening the doors for them to see the magic that’s happening there is an eye-opening experience.

CWL: Are there opportunities for students to volunteer at labs like this to get a real sense of what’s happening?

DB: Each lab has a different focus when it comes to educational outreach. Educators can talk with the labs to find out if there are volunteer opportunities that are a good fit for their students and curriculum.

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