Weekend Journal: Are STEM Education Efforts Targeting The Right People?

Now that my glut of “new job” posts is running out of steam, I should probably get back to an oldie-goldie topic here at Engineer Blogs. In fact, I’ve had this one in the hopper for a while and I thought it be good to bring up before the beginning of the new year when all the kiddies head back to school (well, I don’t have any children, but I notice around town when kids are out of school!).

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education is a hot topic these days. People are finally starting to realize that the engineering work force is getting older and this could have detrimental effects in about 10 years if the queue is not filled with bright young engineers. And as of right now, there aren’t many in the pipeline. In my own experiences, I recently realized I am one of the youngest engineers at my new job. I’m no spring chicken! And behind me, fewer and fewer high schoolers and college kids are chasing engineering degrees for lots of different reasons. Sure, there are some ways we can work towards that now but I firmly believe the first step is when children are not in high school…but elementary school. I don’t mean starting a job training program when a child is 6; I mean enrichment with science and a maker mindset. And don’t get me wrong, there are lots of people pushing these ideas! In fact, one of my good friends has an extricurricular school of sorts to get kids interested in engineering that is doing quite well. But in all of it, I consistently wonder: Are we targeting the right people?

I don’t mean racial, socioeconomic or gender separations; my question is more binary in nature. Are we targeting the children too much when we should be targeting the parents?

Maybe target is the wrong word. Maybe it’s more we need to “market” engineering as a career to the parents. “Booooooo, hiiissssssssss,” you say, as any self respecting engineer would. And though I’m kidding about the hissing, I believe there is real value in marketing engineering careers to parents, especially when their children are still in elementary school.

Let me back up for a second and explain where this idea came from. I was at the gym, which has inspired other posts in the past. I often run around a track where many kids are playing basketball or volleyball on the courts in the middle and I get to watch their interactions as I pass, lap after lap. I’m always encouraged that I live in a community where parents are involved in helping their kids improve, often running drills with their children or showing them a new way of running a play. As for sports, that’s great. And if it is extended into all aspects of that child’s life, the child is guaranteed to be at an advantage because they have an engaged, involved parental figure (hopefully two). That really is a key to success in life and I was very blessed to have the same in my life. My father is a salesman and my mother is a teacher’s aide at an elementary school. Neither had much of a background in science beyond the basic classes required in high school and college, but were very supportive in whatever I wanted to try. So I realize that a parent being an engineer is not a required criteria in order to raise an engineer.

I’ve written in the past though that beyond my parental support, I had exposure via physics and that is what ultimately encouraged me to move towards engineering. I think this is another critical element of STEM education which is often overlooked. Namely, if there isn’t a structure in place to encourage kids in these fields (outstanding teachers, engaging curriculum at schools), what then? Then it falls to the parents to take over this responsibility. But even earlier than that, a parent needs to recognize whether or not these resources exist in the first place. And before that, they need to understand why engineering is important in the first place and that early exposure is the key to a life of curiosity and scientific understanding.

As an extension of this idea, I began wondering about the larger community and how that affects children. I’m sure children living in cities with Maker Faires and Science Centers have a higher exposure, simply because it’s “something to do” on a rainy day (I’m ok with that!). What happens when a community is devoid of scientifically engaging activities and adults that are regularly engaged in science (as work or play)? My point is, this dearth of engineering mindset and scientific careers in a community builds upon itself. I have a hard time imagining children deep in coal mining country have the same opportunities and exposure to science as children growing up in or around silicon valley. If that same child and all his or her classmates grow up and becomes a coal miners, the likelihood of their children having exposure to science decreases because the population shifts away from it as a group. Say one child grows up and decides to become an engineer but cannot find a job in their hometown because there aren’t any jobs there, the potential for exposing children to that career stays the same (because the engineer cannot live there). Without stimulus to change the mindset in a community (say an engineering firm moving to town or something similar), the cycle will repeat . Note: I have no qualms with coal mining as a profession, it was just a target because the communities are often in remote areas.

So now to the question (no answers) part of this post: Should we be targeting certain communities over others? Sounds pretty horrible, right? But think about that paragraph above. Perhaps there is a higher return to target areas already rich in exposure to science and engineering which would be a breeding ground for future engineers. Perhaps some communities are better suited to teaching the requisite classes in order to have the students thrive. I don’t particularly like the implications of favoring one group over another, but the thought intrigues me because the same amount of effort in a wide range of communities will have varying levels of success. In some communities, STEM promotion efforts will take hold easier than others. On the other side of the coin, perhaps promoting STEM as a method of escaping cyclical employment of certain communities could be a true driving factor in motivating certain kids to achieve great things and become great engineers. I’m personally inclined to give everyone the same opportunities, but I realize the logistical realities of spreading a finite amount of funding and effort too thin. If every child receives just a tiny bit of motivational exposure to STEM topics due to large scale programs, none of them will benefit. So please, let me know in the comments.

I believe the above discussion reinforces my point that the parents are the key in this equation. In the event there is targeted efforts, the kids that are left out require some kind of outside motivation, from parents or other family members. If the finite resources reach all students but are not sufficient to truly drive a student into engineering, the parents need to reinforce the topics being discussed.

So how do we market engineering to parents (non-engineering parents, hopefully engineer parents will encourage their kids to be engineers)?  I have no idea, I just know it needs to happen. In places like India and China, where many new engineers are graduated each year, a large part of it is the positive view the people have of engineers in general. China’s leaders are largely engineers and engineering in India is seen as a gateway towards myriad other careers (I have mixed feelings about that). I’d say in the US and other similar countries a good first step is educating the general public about engineering; we consistently find that the general public cannot name a modern day engineer, let alone a scientist most of the time. But much like the discussion above, this might be too broad and ineffective. If you’re paying for TV ad time or something similar, its likely a lot of your audience will be old and much more likely it will be lost among the other noise out there. So instead, perhaps targeted education campaigns at parents, during parent teacher nights or other parental activities (might as well get the parents that are already involved in some way). The key is highlighting the benefits of STEM education and careers (because we’re assuming here they are not involved in that field), so the parent wants to not only promote it at home to their child, but also participate in advancing that goal. Outside of a promotional campaign, I’m not sure what else to do.

Perhaps you have some ideas on how to better promote STEM to parents? Maybe you think this isn’t the direction to go in the first place? Whatever you think, please let us know in the comments!


Thanks to TheWomensMuseum for the scientastic picture above!


14 responses to “Weekend Journal: Are STEM Education Efforts Targeting The Right People?”

  1. Charles J Gervasi

    Thanks for the post. I don’t have conclusive answers either. I think you’re on to something with the comment about people in India and China seeing engineering as a key to success. It seems to me that many people in the US think that an affluent life here is a birthright. An affluent life without being competitive is not sustainable in a global economy. These kids whose parents have them focus on games and entertainment will find they have a lower lifestyle than their parents. That’s fine if they want a modest life by US standards, which isn’t that bad, but they expect their kids will have multiple late-model cars, high-end phones, and so on; and it just won’t happen. Their plan for their kids’ education is they’ll pay for it only with gov’t aid and pay from menial jobs. They may be surprised at how low unskilled jobs pay now compared to when we were kids and how little aid is available relative to the cost of school.

    So maybe it’s just b/c I’m a parent, but I think parents need to step up. Check out science books from the library. Forgo the crib decorations and toys in favor of saving for college. Notice things kids are interested in fixing or understanding and take the time either to show them or to find books at their level of understanding to explain it.

    This works the same for mining towns or highly educated progressive enclaves like Madison, WI. Education = options, choices. If parents can get all fired up about the supposed benefits of breastfeeding, they can get fired up about the proven benefits of STEM education.

  2. Bill Porter


    I have been part of a STEM program for a few years now ( http://www.sciencebrothers.org/ ), a FIRST Robotics team mentor, SeaPerch teacher and science museum volunteer all while having a ‘real engineering job’ for the Navy. I’ve been learning from people who were pushing STEM unto kids when we were babies and I’ll tell you what they have taught me and I agree with.

    The only group to discriminate against is those kids and parents already into STEM. There’s no point in wasting a seat in a SeaPerch class on a kid who’s already going to become a STEM professional. I’d rather see someone in the class who thought they were going to grow up bagging groceries suddenly have an interest in science.

    Parents as a target is an interesting thought, but I don’t think it would work very well. I’ve done shows at schools where 80-90% of the children are on free lunches due to poverty at home. These kids have parents that are dead beats or work 20 hours a day. I don’t see that changing anytime soon nor see a way to get them to do STEM activities with their kids.

    But when these kids are at school, or at a science related after-school program, then we can make a difference. Those schools I’ve seen that had the highest poverty rate have had the most awesome science programs and passionate teachers. That’s where we can make the most difference.

  3. Alexander

    I think you make some good points. I tend to agree that targeting parents matters.

    This is kind off on a different (but related) tangent… but I think a good question is “what do you do when the kid shows interest?”

    I sometimes find myself thinking about what would have given me a better start when I was young. Personally, when I showed interest in electronics and programming, my parents were overall supportive. The problem was that I had very little resources to learn from when I was growing up and I didn’t have enough knowledge to know where to find out more. This made me a bit more of a “late bloomer” in electronics than I think would have been ideal.

    So what might have helped a kid in my situation? These days the internet is a far better resource than when I was first growing up, and that would probably help some. There are also other things such as periodicals that I unfortunately was not aware of when young. I kind of wish I had some mentors when I was young, but yeah.

    I bring all this up because I think that parents might more frequently foster an interest in STEM if they have a better idea of what resources are out there for if the kid shows interest.

  4. gasstationwithoutpumps

    I disagree strongly with the statement
    “The only group to discriminate against is those kids and parents already into STEM. ”

    The kids who are into STEM as kids often fall away from it when it starts getting tough, especially if they see it as a boring field pushed by their parents. Having exciting things for them to do is as important as it is for kids not currently into STEM. That is, retention is as important as recruitment.

    1. Bill Porter


      We don’t see a problem with retention of those kids. If there are already set on STEM, it’s usually their parents that sent them in that direction and they continue to facilitate them. There are dozens of school clubs and science camps they can join.

      What I’m talking about is what kid I get to spend the little grant money we can get on. An already into STEM kid has parents that take them to Science Museums and other places. We don’t need to bring STEM to them. I’m going after the kids that wouldn’t normally ever go to a Science Museum.

  5. David Bley

    Do we have time to wait for STEM programs to produce more scientists, technologists and engineers? If we do produce more people in those professions, will there be jobs available for them?

    I can only speak about my own experience in reference to exposing kids to science and technology and helping those that had an interest and aptitude to learn.

    As a person that was born in 1950 and had access to a good K-12 public school system, the Soviet launch of Sputnik caused at least as much motivation to provide STEM. We had a lack of teachers in science and math. Equipment and books to teach those subjects were either not available or not up to date. I think that it is very difficult to bring schools and teachers up to date in science and technology and even more difficult to keep them up to date considering the rate of change.

    I believe that our educational system has a serious flaw. We should be finding what each child is skilled at, help them become more skilled at what they are good at and use that as a base from which to broaden other skills that they may not be as adept in. Now, we seem to find the things that a student has trouble with and just grind them down focusing on their weakness.

    We also cannot just pour “education” into students. We have to teach them how to learn and how to teach themselves. With the rate of change of technology, that is the only way that a person can keep up.

    Manufacturers can also be much help. I was able to get many a data book and application note either for free or for a very reasonable price from Motorola, GE, RCA, Sylvania and Siliconix to name but a few. I learned much from them and popular technology magazines of the time. Some manufacturers still provide this (Microchip and TI come to mind) but some only cater to those who are in a position to generate a significant product purchase in the short term – especially at a time when data sheets, application notes, and development software cost nothing to provide for download for kids that are interested.

    I would also like to applaud distributors like DigiKey and Mouser, who do not have a minimum order and will sell to anyone. Radio Shack has even started selling Arduino’s.

    I was also always taking things apart and modifying or repurposing them. I fixed many things for family and friends and built kits for myself and others. I applaud the efforts of the open source community and am glad that this has extended to hardware now.

    I also believe that a percentage of future scientists and engineers will result from the grassroot efforts of the maker movement irrespective of whatever our educational systems response is.

  6. Dave Vandenbout

    Chris, I think most parents (at least the ones who care) are aware of the importance of education and the opportunities in the STEM field. They may not be cognizant of the exact details of these careers, but they know generally which courses and activities apply and which don’t. And the internet makes it much easier for parents to get direction and guidance on STEM careers than ever before, so I doubt an awareness-raising campaign would have any added benefits.

    Instead, I would use greed and competitiveness to foster STEM careers. If I were in charge (and I’m not and never will be, thus making this idle speculation even more fun), I would allocate $1B every year and give $300K to each of the 3,100 counties in the USA to run a design contest with the following rules:

    1) Open to any person residing in the county.
    2) Best invention wins in a number of different categories.
    3) No prizes *less* than $50K may be awarded.
    4) No use of corporate/university/government facilities or equipment.
    5) No repeat winners.
    6) No more than $10K allocated to administrative costs for the contest.

    This gives residents in each county a realistic chance of actually winning a substantial amount of money. (Unlike the Intel Science Fair which is international in scope so your chance of winning is pretty small and their prizes are relatively small given the amount of competition.) Children and adults would have an incentive to learn and do some STEM-like activities with the hope of a real, life-changing payoff. It might even be doable politically since the $1B is spread over all the congressional districts so everybody gets some pork. And you could get the $1B right out of the $70B Dept. of Education yearly budget.

    1. Carmen Parisi

      I like this idea. I’d be entering that contest every year for sure. I think we should try to put you in charge anyways Dave…

  7. Chris Gammell

    I saw this after the fact on Twitter this morning, thought it was an interesting addition to what I wrote (though I think this was posted earlier):


  8. engineeringprof

    With U.S. NSF BRIGE and CAREER awards on my mind constantly, I’m also thinking about effective STEM efforts on a regular basis. I agree with the majority sentiment here that we should target very young kids with non-STEM parents and in low income areas.

    Also, there are high schools in Chicago that don’t even offer pre-calculus or an advanced science course. I know because I almosted ended up at one. How can we reasonably expect students at any of those schools to get a STEM degree from a university even if they wanted to. Those students should get an automatic 1 year tuition grant for college to take remedial math and science.

    To add a twist though, I don’t think politicians in the U.S. are serious about STEM education. It’s far more economical for capitalist corporations to import scientists and engineers from other countries. And since corporations are the people politicians really care about, we will probably continue to see the decline of Americans with STEM degrees. In fact, I just saw a story on TV last week stating that U. S. politicians are pushing for changes in immigration laws to grant more visas and automatic citizenship to scientists and engineers from other countries with advanced degrees.
    I can’t find the piece I saw, but here is a story from earlier this summer on the topic, it focuses on Republicans, but Democrats are also pushing to just…I want to say outsource, but a new word is needed…import skilled workers
    A few European countries already have some sweet incentives in place. I considered doing that myself a few years ago.

  9. Alison

    As a mom of a 14 & 7 year old, and an engineer, how could I not weigh in on this post?

    I live in a diverse community. . .the kind where one school will have 75% kids on reduced lunches but another school a mile away will have 5% low-income families.

    Based on my experiences, I think you should be targeting the mid-to-high income parents and the low income kids directly. Here’s why.

    We have an Aerospace and Engineering high school program that any kid in the district can apply to. My son has applied. He’s an A/B student, but he’s a mechanically-oriented kid. Last night, I bumped into a family with a son the same age. He is a smart kid and very academically-oriented. (My son would be happy with 80.0% Bs if I didn’t ride him, while on his own, this kid puts in the extra hrs to get As). They didn’t apply to the A/E program because the parents thought it might be TOO HARD for him.

    I understand where that family is coming from, but I don’t agree. So the kid graduates with a 4.0. Great. My kid could graduate with a 3.0, 3 CAD courses, a Robotics competition, and an internship at a real engineering company. Even if his grades aren’t awesome, I think my kid would be well prepared for college and an engineering career. The other kid has learned that being #1 is more important than challenging yourself. He probably won’t want to do engineering in college either, since it’s sooo hard. In this case, I think the parents could be better educated.

    Now, for the low-income kids. . .I have a unique perspective because I am married to a former low-income kid. The concerns of low-income families are MUCH different from ours. You have kids moving around yearly, living with different parents (or aunts, grandmas, etc.). Parents works shift jobs. They aren’t home, and they don’t have educational backgrounds to help with homework or time to figure out where to get help with homework. My kids had minor speech, vision, and ADHD problems that might have gone unnoticed or unadressed in a low-income home, so you end up with kids who think they are incapable of even doing schoolwork when they have problems unrelated to intellect. There are attitudes to overcome, too. Not only are kids not thinking about STEM careers, they have “EZ money” careers on their mind (my nieces are an example). They want to be models or marry “sugar daddies” NOT become engineers. I think that these kids need to be targeted in after school programs (their schools are overloaded with other problems). The programs first concern should be getting their school work & academic skills up to par, then adding extra work since their school’s curriculum could be behind a mid-income school, then having fun programs that introduce STEM concepts. I don’t think it matters if a kid likes robots if he can’t keep up in math. My company actually volunteers with low income kids in programs like these, so we are trying. There are just many obstacles in the way.

    1. Chris Gammell

      Holy moly, you weren’t kidding about having good insight! Amazing perspective, thank you Alison!

  10. Jen

    I think you brought up some very good points. I do agree with Alison, low income kids are definitely much harder to target due to attitude and expectations. I grew up in a blue-collar neighborhood and went to school with kids from all socioeconomic levels. I was lucky in the high school I went to as we were on the college track. If I hadn’t gone to that HS I’m not sure I would have ended up an engineer. My other HS option was definitely not the best school as in where the biggest achievement was if there were no drug busts that week. The neighborhood I grew up in most kids did not go to college. So the “go on college” as an option let alone go into a STEM program in HS is hard for many people who grew up this way to comprehend because it’s not something expected of them.

    Where we live currently is in a “blue -collar” town. but it is next to an Air Force base and cities around it range from blue collar to white collar to severely socioeconomically depressed. Our high school has 2 STEM programs, one that has been there “forever’ that is part of the County Career Center program and the other that is new that is affiliated with Project Lead the Way (PLTW). The middle school has a PLTW program and the elementary schools have a program that focuses on getting the kids thinking about going to college starting in kindergarten. (each teacher chooses a university and then incorporates it in the classroom and lessons).

    I am on the advisory committee for the PLTW. This is a topic that hasn’t come up yet. I plan to bring it up. Though right now we are have more trouble retaining girls in the Engineering portion of the program and keeping kids in the classes all 4 years due to conflicts with AP courses and fine arts courses.

    I do agree you need the parents involved but if the parents are working 2 or 3 jobs to keep the home or one of the parents isn’t involved or if they are able to be involved but can’t help with the homework it really makes it harder to encourage the child to go into those harder level classes.

  11. Susan

    As a academic, I have bought into the outcries of “we need more STEM graduates” to populate our workforce. Our governor chants STEM STEM every time he talks to the media.

    When my own daughter decided to pursue STEM in college and become an engineer, I was thrilled, not only because I thought this would be a path to a good secure future, but that she would be contributing to society and being a female in a profession that is largely dominated by males, be a mentor for girls pursuing STEM careers.

    So after four long years and a lot of tearful phone calls about the difficulty of the engineering curriculum, my daughter graduated with an engineering degree recently. Despite a solid resume with internships and a job within the engineering department at her university, she is now having a very difficult time finding a job. Granted, she chose a very specialized area within engineering, but I honestly thought that employers would be courting her. The reality is that she has had only a couple of interviews and no offers. She wanted to stay in our state and with the governor chanting STEM she thought that might be a possibility, but she is finding she has to move her job search farther and farther away. And the more time that passes without a job offer, the more unsure she is that she made the right decision by pursuing a STEM career.

    Graduate school is something she wanted to do later, after she had a few years of industry experience, but now it’s starting to look like her only option.

    So are there really STEM jobs out there? I’m feeling a little like she (and I) have been sold a bill of goods regarding STEM careers.