Local Chamber Connects Students with STEM Opportunities

March 12, 2015
Many students are graduating high school without the tools they need to succeed in today’s workforce, such as proficiency in math or science. It is becoming essential to master these skills in order to close the skills gap that hinders growth in many fields. In particular, science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) skills are increasingly in demand, and students should be learning these skills in school to position themselves for the jobs of the future.
STEM jobs comprise 20% of the workforce, but only 16% of American high school seniors are proficient in math and interested in a STEM career. Similarly, schools are devoting approximately 2.3 hours per week to science lessons, a 43 minute decline since 1994. Our education system needs to pursue rigorous STEM curriculum so that we can compete internationally.
The Blackstone Valley Education Foundation in Massachusetts acknowledged this need for STEM programs and developed an initiative to combat this skills gap. Prior to the development of this program, the Blackstone Valley Chamber of Commerce Education Foundation transitioned from a standing committee of the Blackstone Valley Chamber of Commerce to an independent nonprofit that still operates as an affiliate partner of the chamber, continuing to work together on projects connecting businesses to local schools.
Eight years later, a collaborative effort between the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University and the Blackstone Valley Education Foundation produced what the Education Foundation’s Executive Director Paul Lynskey considers their “most valuable program.” The STEMKids Conference—held annually since 2007—gives 7th and 8th graders from ten school districts the opportunity to learn about STEM fields from businesses in an interactive environment. 
At STEMKids, the students spend an entire day on the Tufts University campus attending a variety of self-selected classes where they participate in career-centered workshops. In many ways, these 7th and 8th graders have the same responsibilities and experiences as a college student for the day. While the students are participating in the conference, their parents attend a college planning and financial aid session covering topics such as “How to Maximize High School” and “Options for Saving and Paying for College.” This collaborative program is essential to the formulation of interest in and support of STEM fields from both students and their families.
The most imperative piece of STEMKids is that students at a young age are able to interact with representatives from corporations such as Intel, Microsoft, Raytheon, and many others. It demonstrates to these students that their classroom interests can translate to careers and that these courses have relevance, according to Lynskey. Its purpose is for students and teachers to learn more about science and technology and careers in STEM fields to know what job opportunities exist and to prepare students with the skills necessary to fill these jobs. 
The Blackstone Valley Education Foundation has found this conference to be huge success. The program is a priority not only for the foundation, but also for the dean of Tufts University. The STEMKids Conference has successfully retained all of the businesses that have participated in this program every year because these companies recognize the value of partnership between businesses and schools to promote this important initiative. It is imperative that STEM curriculum becomes better incorporated into schools in order to close the skills gap and set our students up for future success.  
Loren Grier is an undergraduate student at American University and an intern at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation