Shortage of Students in STEM Education? Here Are Some Reasons Why.

The water professions need qualified new entrants. STEM education is a key starting point. A variety of barriers stand in the way.

It’s hard finding young people who gravitate toward careers in water and wastewater. It’s harder when many lack interest and proficiency in scientific and technical subjects.

The same, of course, could be said for many professions, as retirement waves aren’t limited to the water sector. One remedy is more and better science, technology, engineering, and math education, starting in the early grades. The trouble is that many students shy away from STEM for reasons that may or may not be valid.

Water operators have opportunities to talk up their careers and emphasize STEM education in all manner of settings — during plant tours, in media interviews, at career days and community water festivals, and more. On these occasions, it helps to understand the barriers in the way of STEM education to be prepared to work at knocking them down.

Various studies have looked at the shortage of STEM students and the reasons behind it. Knowing the “why” is a first step toward developing the “how” that can help bring more promising young people into the fold. Here are some barriers researchers have found:

There are too few qualified instructors. Teaching STEM effectively means not just knowing the subject matter itself, but knowing how to present it in ways that match the students’ intellectual levels. There’s a need for more teachers able to do this, especially for the youngest students. Schools need to invest more in developing teachers for STEM.

Students lack inspiration and are not well prepared. Students start turning away from STEM studies well before they start high school. Even many who persist into high school experience failure because they lack a strong foundation in basic skills, like algebra, that they need for more challenging STEM courses. Furthermore, many students perceive STEM studies as less exciting than other fields.

There’s too much pressure to earn good grades. Many students think of STEM courses as “too hard.” They place more importance on keeping a high grade-point average than in the satisfaction and challenges that STEM studies can provide.

Students fear social stigma. Many young people have a perception — reinforced by what they see on TV — that those who pursue STEM in school or at work will be considered geeks or nerds. That blinds them to seeing STEM as a gateway to satisfying and lucrative careers.

Approaches to STEM education fail to connect with students. Learning opportunities beyond the classroom can help young people take interest. These can include after-school programs, competitions (like FIRST Robotics), designing and building activities, and science-focused summer programs.

Gender biases and stereotypes persist. Perceptions remain that girls are “not as good as boys” in science and math. Stereotypes like these can weaken girls’ aspirations for careers in science and engineering. Often, consciously or not, parents and teachers steer girls toward more traditionally female courses of study and careers.

Emphasis on STEM education starts too late. Children are innately interested in and ready to engage in STEM learning at very young ages. This shows in their propensity for activities like stacking blocks, building forts and solving problems. Researchers argue that like the seeds of literacy, the seeds of STEM must be planted early.

In your public contacts, can you help make STEM interesting? Speak in ways that forge connections with kids? Explicitly attack the “geek factor”? Consider giving some special encouragement to girls in the groups you meet?

If you can do these things, you just might create the spark that moves a child or two toward STEM studies — and in the bargain maybe win a recruit to the water industry.


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