8 Principles to Build a Strong Foundation for STEM Pathways
From Harvard’s 2011 Pathways To Prosperity report to the Committee on STEM Education (CoSTEM)’s 2018 initiative to promote excellence and innovation in STEM education, to teachers in the classroom, parents of students, local chambers, and city economic development offices, everyone agrees that our society needs to do a better job of preparing our youth to solve the challenges that tomorrow will bring.
As more and more people try to find a solution, frustration seems to increase. This is no simple task and there is no magic wand to wave to accomplish it.
During my 27 years as a science teacher, robotics coach, and STEM education entrepreneur, I have been fortunate to collaborate with hundreds of schools and educational STEM programs from across the country. What I learned through that experience changed the way I see my role as a classroom teacher and as a business owner. What I have learned is that all successful career pathways have certain components in common, even though it might not always be evident at first.
Struggling career pathways are often developed through short-term partnerships, such as a business’ donation to a school, a guest speaker, or a field trip to a manufacturing plant. Although entertaining and eye opening for some, they aren’t sustainable.
Successful pathways are created through deep and meaningful coalitions of organizations. These coalitions bring education, community members, and business leaders together with a shared dedication to meeting society's biggest challenges in a responsible, sustainable, and profitable way. They blur the lines between formal education, community service, workforce development, and economic development.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Talent Pipeline Management (TPM) initiative is based on this concept. They work with states and regions to build partnerships and coalitions so that initiatives to prepare youth for the jobs of tomorrow are led by the employers who will employ them one day.
To create a successful coalition-led career pathway, in STEM or other disciplines, the following principles can help establish a foundation for long-term success.
1. Be Unique
Your pathway may not look like or feel like others and that is ok. Each strategy to develop a pipeline for talent must be a custom fit to the unique landscape within the community. To be successful, create an open dialogue among members of the coalition to ensure that the needs and opportunities within the business community are aligning to the target goals of the educational program.
2. Include Real-World Experiences
Bringing education to life with real-world experiences can be embeddable, sustainable, and scalable in our schools as long as they are supported and nurtured by the community and made engaging, inspiring, and relevant by business.
3. Breakdown Barriers
As these opportunities are developed in our school systems, it’s critical to ensure that the opportunities are equitable. Think through the framework of the high-quality educational or workforce development experience to make sure it is accessible to people of all ages, backgrounds, cultures, and abilities in your community.
4. Understand the Difference
Recognize that there is a difference between educational courses, educational programs, and educational pathways. Courses are classes you take, a program is a series of courses on a certain subject, and a pathway is a combination of courses, programs, and other learning experiences. It can be easy to get lost in the weeds of individual courses, so keep the coalition focused on creating agile pathways.
5. Think Differently
Embrace out-of-the-box thinking and be open to non-traditional solutions to problems. Be emboldened by the creativity, passion, and dedication of others working to solve this shared challenge.
6. Use Research
Create systems that are based on current research on how young people grow, learn, and develop. Look to best practices on how educational pathways are most effectively created and implemented and use those as models. STEM 2026: A vision for Innovation in STEM Education is a great example, as is MDRC Research on Career Pathways. The Chamber Foundation has a practice of sharing successful models of community collaboration as well.
7. Empower Students
Encourage rigorous project-based learning that builds students' competence and self-efficacy. If we help students to find a connection between school and their career of choice, they will be more encouraged to test out those avenues in the real world to see which ones fit.
8. Leave a Legacy
As a teacher or an employer engaging in activities to prepare our youth for their future career and the strength of our future workforce, be sure to consider the legacy you want to leave.
“The best way to protect your future is to create it” - Abraham Lincoln
We all live within a vast network. Promoting educational opportunities and career pathways that meet the needs of all schools, students, families, and businesses in that network requires each of us to raise our hand and participate as a creator.