Preparing students for a STEM career will take collaboration. Just ask these educational partners - Technical.ly Philly

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Preparing students for a STEM career will take collaboration. Just ask these educational partners

The heads of Montgomery County Community College and DC's Challenger Center on how their orgs work together to offer hands-on science and tech education, and the importance of engaging learners of all backgrounds.

Students at the Challenger Learning Center at Scobee Education Center, San Antonio College.

(Courtesy photo)

This is a guest post by Dr. Victoria L. Bastecki-Perez, president of Montgomery County Community College, and Dr. Lance Bush, president and CEO of Challenger Center.
We know the STEM sector represents one of the fastest growing employment opportunities for students across the U.S.

By 2029, the number of jobs in STEM is projected to grow 8%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The number of jobs in this field is expected to grow so fast that it is anticipated there will be nearly 3.5 million unfilled positions in the field by 2025.

These jobs are also higher paying than many other career paths. The median annual salary of a professional in STEM was nearly $90,000 in 2020, compared to just over $40,000 in non-STEM occupations. Additionally, there are countless positions in STEM that do not require a four-year college degree, like website developers, pharmacy technicians, air traffic controllers, and many more.

Clearly, there is a huge opportunity for today’s students to prepare themselves for a career in this fast-growing field. Doing so will require students to pursue higher education, learn new skills required by STEM employers, and get real-life experience in this field — and educational organizations have a responsibility to support students in their journey, from kindergarten through college graduation and beyond.

To do so, educators and administrators will need to take the following steps to provide their students with the best path forward to a career in STEM:

1. Teach critical thinking and soft skills.

The STEM field is growing and transforming at a pace so fast that it is impossible to anticipate what will come next, where the industry will go, and which career opportunities will emerge. This puts educators in the difficult position of preparing students for jobs that do not yet exist. The best way to do so is to teach students how to learn new skills, think critically, and problem solve so they are prepared to quickly pick up new capabilities and adapt to whatever technology arises in the future.

Arming students with excellent soft skills is equally as important. STEM employees of the future need to know how to write an email, build presentations, work effectively in teams, communicate effectively, etc. — and STEM employers tell us all the time about their need for employees that have mastered these essential skills. However, educators too often overlook these abilities. Educators must go beyond traditional curriculum and provide students opportunities to learn these skills in the classroom to prepare them for a career in STEM.

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2. Help students find the most cost-effective, efficient path to employment.

Many students today do not have the time or financial resources to attend a traditional four-year university. Unfortunately, this puts many jobs in today’s workforce out of reach for these individuals. However, many careers in STEM do not require a bachelor’s degree, but do require an associate’s degree, a specialty certificate, or another kind of credential from a two-year college.

Community colleges and local educational institutions can play a critical role in helping students identify a pathway to a career in this field that works best for them. By collaborating with local employers, public schools, and other community partners to align policies and practices, community colleges can develop highly structured and efficient academic pathways into STEM careers that fit the time and financial constraints of each individual student. Doing so will vastly improve the accessibility of these careers to a much wider range of individuals and can help meet the expected backlog of unfilled positions in this industry.

3. Provide opportunities to practice new skills in a dynamic, hands-on environment.

In addition to learning new skills, students seeking a career in STEM also need the opportunity to apply them in practice. New education centers are emerging across the U.S. that provide a hands-on setting for students to gain real-life experience refining the skills they learn in school.

Challenger Center is one organization aiming to provide just that. Challenger Learning Centers, located across the U.S. with a new Center opening on Montgomery County Community College’s Pottstown Campus, use space-themed simulated learning environments to engage students in a hands-on and dynamic setting. These experiences allow students to sharpen the skills they learn in school and role play for a career in STEM. Gaining this memorable exposure at an early age empowers them to pursue STEM-focused education later in life.

Educators must seek out such organizations that provide students with this valuable opportunity to put their skills into practice. By collaborating with like-minded organizations, educators can vastly broaden the reach of their STEM education efforts by placing students in exciting environments that inspire them to pursue a career in this industry.

4. Engage students at an early age and through all stages of life.

Discussing STEM with children is one of the best ways to engage students at an early age and raise their awareness of the field. Many young people go through their entire childhood without realizing a career in STEM is possible for them. Creating opportunities for hands-on, STEM-focused education in an engaging setting at an early age helps students cultivate skills in problem solving, critical thinking, communication, and teamwork that will put them on the right track to a successful career. It is also critically important to engage girls, students of color, and children from underserved communities. These groups are vastly underrepresented in this industry. By raising awareness of STEM and its accessibility among these groups, educators can help set students up for success in this field.

Educators’ engagement efforts must extend beyond children to students at all stages of life. All demographics — from students still in school, to those seeking to start or restart their careers, to retirees interested in continuing their education later in life — can benefit from STEM opportunities. Community colleges must play an integral role in helping these individuals explore the latest in STEM programming right in their own backyard in a cost-effective way. Considering their engagement with students of all ages and backgrounds, community colleges are especially well-suited to prepare students for a career in this fast-growing sector by exposing them to potential career paths, offering STEM-focused curriculum, and teaching them the required skills.

Collaboration is key

Preparing the next generation of students for a career in STEM requires a collaborative approach. No single institution can accomplish this feat alone. It will require teamwork among a wide range of educational organizations to help raise awareness, teach the necessary skills, and help students eventually land a career in this fast-growing industry. The STEM field has much to offer our communities. As educators, it is our job to ensure our students today have the resources they need to take full advantage and use their education to reach their full potential.

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The importance of STEM careers and education will be further discussed during Montgomery County Community College’s 27th annual Technology and Learning Conference, taking place virtually on Friday, Sept. 24.

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