The STEM workforce offers an incredibly rich and diverse array of career paths across many fields and sectors. A random sample of job titles at a recent engineering summit identified roles such as Mechanical Engineer, Quality Control Technician, Data Analyst, Project Manager, and Post-Doctoral Fellow. All highly valuable professions that utilise STEM skills every day. But it poses the question: would a student understand what these job titles mean? Would they connect these jobs with STEM skills – and if not, how do we bridge that gap?
Our recent workshop on ‘Strengthening pathways for students through successful STEM engagement’, delivered as part of the IEEE Women in Engineering International Leadership Summit shed light on this topic. We explored the pivotal role that people in industry have, in steering young women toward STEM careers and breaking down the stereotypes of what STEM jobs are and who can do them.
Workshop attendees highlighted the need for visible role models to support young students into STEM careers
Amidst the backdrop of an ever-evolving job landscape, where 23% of current jobs are projected to change within the next five years due to industry transformation, preparing the next generation becomes paramount.
It’s becoming increasingly important to expose youth not only to STEM job titles or careers, but also to the skills integral to these professions. We need to draw clear connections between the STEM learning in school with possible applications in the workforce.
“Children are asked to choose career paths when they're young...they don’t even know what a career pathway means.” – Workshop attendee
Here are our top tips for role models engaging in conversations about STEM careers:
1. Tell your own story: Bridge the gap between theory and practice by using your personal story as an example. Whether you are invited as a guest speaker or showing students around a workplace, make sure to emphasise firsthand experiences of how STEM skills acquired in your education helped you get into your chosen career, and the meaningful contributions you are making in your work.
Nick Roskruge (Te Atiawa, Ngāti Tama), Professor of Horticulture & Ethnobotany at Massey University, talks to rangatahi about his passion for growing kūmara and sharing his knowledge on indigenous farming practices.
2. Connect passions to purpose: By linking personal passions to skills and purposeful applications, we can empower individuals to see the tangible impact of their abilities on real-world challenges. For example, if someone has a love of coding, show them how their algorithms can contribute to diagnosing diseases. Or talk about how a love for pulling things apart and tinkering could translate into a career fixing machines or designing new products.
3. Highlight the human impact: Illuminate the connection between STEM endeavours and helping people, communities and the betterment of society. Young children care deeply about being able to do good and help others. Encourage budding inventors by demonstrating how their innovative creations, like a bridge, can foster connections among families and communities.
Allan Leahy, stormwater engineer at Auckland Council Healthy Waters shows tamariki how stormwater infrustructure and water-sensitive design can be used to reduce the impacts of high-rainfall events and lessen flood risks.
4. Include everyone: Specific outreach programmes for girls or underrepresented groups are absolutely appropriate and necessary, but remember that breaking down stereotypes requires changing everyone’s attitudes. Think about how you can include everyone in your conversations or talk about how colleagues from different backgrounds have contributed to your learning and work. Showing the value of diverse thinking and teamwork in your job will normalise these for students looking to join the future workforce.
They can't be what they can't see - it's important that rangatahi are exposed to role models that look like them to ensure they can see themselves in these positions.
5. Ask questions: Effective conversations require open, two-way communication so make sure to ask questions, listen and respond to the interests and feedback from the students. This may lead the conversation down different paths than you were expecting, but will be all the more engaging and impactful as a result.
At its core, STEM is about building a better world, one solution at a time. It empowers individuals to apply their skills and knowledge to create meaningful change, addressing global challenges and leaving a positive impact on society. These are important messages to be sharing, and they start with conversations.