Two things are true regarding STEM. One, there are a tremendous amount of job openings, and two, there are not enough qualified people to fill these jobs. The technology sector alone employs 6 million people. By 2018, just next year, it is predicted that the United States will suffer a shortage of 230,000 qualified advanced-degree STEM occupations. Although the Bureau for Labor Statistics has predicted that STEM jobs grow 55 percent faster than non-STEM jobs, the flow of talent and enthusiastic individuals into the STEM pipeline is rather limited. Dramatic change is needed if we are to prevent a weakening of our science sector. With a new presidential administration that has plans to “squeeze” the budget of civilian science agencies, we must look for a creative way to keep science a national priority. I propose that the solution is to involve and prepare our next generation. But we must do this in the right way.
Why Engaging Kids Matters
According to the renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, all scientists are children who never truly grew up and lost their creative inspiration and scientific curiosity. In my opinion, creativity is as important as literacy. Therefore, we need to stop legislation which negatively tampers with STEM education and instead should encourage our youth to keep being curious and allow them to see the world as their giant laboratory, where the possibilities and opportunities are endless.
Further, we don’t want our young generation being involved with science merely because there might be a test in their class the next day. Instead, education, in addition to providing the necessary technical skills required for STEM fields, should ignite passion and serve as a platform for students to seek more rigorous and professional opportunities. In the words of poet William Butler Yeats, “Education isn’t the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”
How can ECR’s help?
It is crucial for us all to contribute to this necessary endeavor by lighting the fire and igniting the passion of our nation’s youth to pursue and explore the rich world of science, technology, engineering, and math. More specifically, we need to encourage young individuals from all backgrounds, ethnicities and races to participate in hands-on STEM projects and adventures. Through experiencing these life-changing moments of discovery along with mentors from various STEM fields, the next generation can get an edge and fully experience life as a scientist, something they will hopefully become in the future.
As we all know, it is quite difficult to dream about something you have never seen. How can one see themselves as a real professional scientist working in a laboratory if they have never even set foot in a lab before or met a professional scientist? Many teenagers nationwide have already voiced that they may be discouraged from pursuing STEM careers simply because they either do not know anyone who works in these fields or they do not understand what people in these fields do.
The good news is that STEM professionals are already responding to this pandemic. Doctors, engineers, and technology professionals across America are leaving the conventional cubicles, offices, and workspaces they normally reside in to mentor and teach young, aspiring, and creative individuals. These truly inspiring and life changing engagements are spurred by US 2020, a White House program designed to bring together schools, committed companies and leading nonprofits to mentor students of all backgrounds and expose them to STEM. The goal is to match 1 million STEM mentors with students by the year 2020. Having had the opportunity to conduct some of my own research alongside professional mentors and researchers, I am clearly aware of the tremendous value of a student to mentor relationship. There is also evidence that when given a chance, kids can make scientific discoveries even now, through programs such as the Phage Phinders, where kids can identify novel mycobacteriophages. Even within the last decade, kids have been credited with the discovery of a new supernova, archaeological findings, in addition to finding the origins of a certain type of fungi.
Therefore, I urge you all, STEM professional or not, to contribute to this necessary cause. The time to act is now. We must give our support for initiatives like US 2020 and recognize the importance of advancing our involvement of youth in professional STEM related activities. It is up to us as citizens, charged with the power of unification and democracy to enact change that allows our next generation to explore their creativity.