Starting STEM Young – Why STEM Exposure in Early Education is Key

The importance of quality STEM education has been on the rise in schools and after-school programs across the country. This is likely due to the rapidly changing world and the increase in STEM jobs that is happening currently and is projected to happen in the coming years. STEM occupations have grown by 79 percent since 1990 and are projected to grow by 8.8 percent by 2029. This growth is faster than any other industry. The rapidly growing STEM workforce means that we, as educators, need to put a focus on preparing kids in science, technology, engineering, and math starting at a young age. 

Quality STEM education is important for children in primary, secondary, and higher education. However, younger students tend to be overlooked when it comes to this curriculum. Early implementation of STEM concepts is key to comprehension, comfortability, and awareness. In the article below, T. Ramon Stewart, President of Clayton University, talks about the importance of early exposure to STEM education, regardless of socioeconomic status, race, or other factors. 

A Black college president on the importance of STEM: ‘I never heard of engineering until college’

This article was originally published by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

In July, T. Ramon Stuart became president of Clayton State University. He is the first Black president of the 52-year-old public campus, coming to Clayton State from Fort Valley State University where he had been provost and vice president of academic affairs since 2016.

Stuart earned undergraduate and graduate degrees from West Virginia University and a doctorate in higher education administration from Ohio University. In his first guest column for the AJC education blog, Stuart addresses the need to expose more students of color to engineering and other STEM disciplines.

By T. Ramon Stuart

Growing up in the coalfields of southern West Virginia as an African American in the 1980s presented challenges that I failed to realize until later in life. My county, McDowell County, once boasted a population of more than 100,000 and had the nickname “Little New York” now has a population less than 20,000, and the unfortunate distinction of being one of the poorest counties in America.

My humble beginnings started prior to my birth. My mother quit school in the ninth grade and had me at 19. She raised me as a single parent on her $300 per month welfare check. However, she always valued education and eventually got her GED.

But she didn’t stop there. She hitchhiked 64 miles a day to get an associate and bachelor’s degree before purchasing our first family car when I was in the fourth grade as she completed her master’s degree.

My mother’s educational journey concluded with a doctorate. I can only appreciate now the monumental feat I witnessed that I could not – and would not – understand until later in my life.

This is because while my mother worked tirelessly to expose me to life’s opportunities, there were things my small county could not provide me. For instance, I never heard of the word engineering until my sophomore year in college. Once I learned more about this profession, I chose it as my major and future career.

At the time, I did not realize how rare it was for a minority student to study engineering. Though African Americans make up 12% of the U.S. population, they make up just 5% of the engineering workforce. Women and Latinos are similarly underrepresented.

Engineering is part of what academia calls STEM education – science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. STEM is important because it educates and trains individuals with skills that are essential in our complex, technology-driven global economy. It provides the science necessary to meet our challenges in everyday life.

Employer demand for STEM skills is enormous and will only continue to grow. And, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the wage for STEM jobs is about 70% more than the national average salary. In 20 years, 80% of all jobs will require technical skills.

Though America will need to add a million more STEM professionals to meet workforce demands by 2022, African American youth are the least likely racial group to enter technology professions, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Creating more minority STEM professionals is not just an economic need, it is a social need as well. By eliminating barriers facing minority students who wish to be exposed to STEM, we will not only broaden the economic opportunities of minority students for a modern workforce, but empower them to be agents of change in our increasingly diverse society.

Therefore, how can we encourage more minority students to pursue a STEM education?

We must expose all minority students to STEM early in their education.

Successful scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and other technology-related experts must serve as mentors to all young minority students, exposing them to minority STEM professionals. For example, as an engineering student, I had no mentors to teach me how to apply for internships or build relationships in the engineering field.

Build new teaching practices on STEM in schools that appeal to the lives of all minority students.

Create a greater sense of inclusion in academia around STEM education that is welcoming to all minority students.

Lastly, we must demonstrate to minority students that promoting a STEM education is not anti-liberal arts education. We can align a vision that allows all minority students to have the power to choose a vast array of career choices that are important personally and to society.

My engineering education, my years as a professor, and now my journey as a university president were more than I ever dreamed as a poor African American kid growing up in Appalachia. It was made possible because of the opportunities that arose through education. As an African American engineer with a doctorate in higher education administration, I took the road less traveled because it was foreign to me. And I want to expose that road and all others to minority students who are considering their personal path in life.

Having previously served at two historically Black colleges and universities, I grew fond of meeting students where they are helping them go places never imagined. After all, this is what others did for my mother and me — creating opportunities to help transform lives through higher education.

As the first African American president of Clayton State University, I want to inspire and expose our students to all the possibilities in life and make dreams real, while providing anyone, like my mother, or even myself, the opportunity to get a degree regardless of circumstances. 

Why This Matters

This column by Stuart touches on many issues that are important to education, STEM education, and the future of our country. Regardless of race, students deserve the opportunity to receive a quality education that sets them up for success in their future careers. He touches on the need for an inclusive educational environment that spreads awareness of STEM and the benefits it has on society and minority students. This stood out to STEM Sports® because we believe it is an essential part to effectively teach complex science, technology, engineering, and math concepts. In each lesson of our curriculum, we highlight STEM jobs that connect to the concepts students are learning. This answers the ‘why am I learning this?’ question and shows students a clear path to their possible future. 

The idea of early implementation of STEM education can seem intimidating to parents, educators, and students alike. STEM is often seen as a difficult subject area. With the importance of early education in mind, STEM Sports® offers our STEM K-2 Multi-Sport curriculum. By using sports as a facilitator of the curriculum, we use something familiar to students that take away some of the unfamiliar feelings that may be happening during the lesson. By starting students early, we are preparing them for future STEM courses, increasing their chances of success in these areas. 

T. Ramon Stuart said, “Creating more minority STEM professionals is not just an economic need, it is a social need as well.” Diversity in the STEM workforce fuels creativity and innovation. Giving ALL students the opportunity to engage with STEM early on in their educational journey will give them the tools they need to eventually join the STEM workforce and use them in their everyday lives. 

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