Last month, YouthQuest mailed out packages to hundreds of students participating in its afterschool program. Each box was filled with materials and tools to use while following a series of live, virtual lessons centered on science, technology, engineering, art and math, or STEAM.
These activities were part of STEAMQuest, a weeklong event designed to give YouthQuest students the space to explore interests in competitive fields. The projects varied by grade and included everything from creating freestanding structures using marshmallows and noodles to building robots.
The goal was to be engaging and—most importantly—to be accessible.
That early and approachable introduction to STEAM is key to helping youth build fluency in these subjects, which are at the heart of a talent shortage in our country. Research shows that by 2023, more than two million jobs in STEM-related fields will go unfilled due a lack of skilled candidates. Women and minorities are especially underrepresented in these industries.
The skills gap can be attributed, in part, to the fact people just aren’t that interested. In 2018, a Junior Achievement (JA) survey of 13- to 17-year-olds found that students’ career ambitions have shifted away from STEM. Of those surveyed, only 24 percent of boys said they wanted a STEM career—down from 36 percent in 2017. Likewise, only 11 percent of girls expressed interest in those fields.
So why the disinterest? According to JA, teens reported leaning toward jobs that highlighted their capabilities.
If that’s the case, it’s important that educators and families look for ways to help students develop a stronger understanding of those fields. One of the best ways to do that is through early and reoccurring exposure— which is what YouthQuest aims to do through both its regular and special programming. By making STEAM an everyday experience for students, we can help build their confidence and fearlessness. The more comfortable a young person feels in these fields, the more capable they’ll feel as a result.
Often, people who work with computers and technology have been dabbling in those things since they were kids. As children, they had the freedom to play around and not worry about making mistakes. When they ran into a problem, they solved it, and that allowed them to move on to the next, bigger problem.
That’s why the hands-on exploration of these subjects is so important. It provides an opportunity for students to immerse themselves in the learning experience without fear of failure.
Even after regular exposure, a student may decide that STEAM isn’t for them—and that’s okay. The skills practiced during these activities and exercises—analytical thinking, creativity and learning by trial and error—will serve them well regardless of what career path they follow. If anything, they’ll be better equipped to problem solve, ask questions and connect the dots to a solution. And what employer wouldn’t want that kind of person of their team?
Kristina Johnston is the COO of the Flint & Genesee Chamber of Commerce.