Doctor. Personal trainer. Data analyst. Software engineer. Physician’s assistant. Car mechanic. Occupational therapist. Add to this list countless other jobs you’ve never heard of because they don’t exist yet. What do they all have in common? Each of these occupations requires a solid foundation in STEM — the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math.

Everyone is talking about the importance of STEM education these days, and for good reason. Today’s kids will encounter a job market that is dominated by STEM fields, from health care, an industry that adds several hundred thousand new jobs each year, to computing and biotech, and more. As the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering points out, “Practically everything everywhere that is not found in nature is the product of engineering.”

Even if you don’t foresee your child growing up to be an engineer, mathematician, or scientist, STEM classes teach the critical thinking and problem solving skills kids need to thrive in every field. And the Department of Commerce reports that STEM degree holders tend to earn more, whether or not they work in a STEM-related job, which is why STEM is the most important thing happening — or not happening — in your child’s classroom.

STEM’s image problem

Despite its importance, interest in STEM studies is dropping among U.S. students. This is particularly so among girls and minorities, according to the U.S. News/Raytheon STEM index, which measures high school student interest in STEM fields. This lack of interest will have serious ramifications in the future.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that a million STEM-related jobs will be added to the U.S. economy between 2012 and 2022. Many will go unfilled, experts say, because not enough students are focusing on STEM subjects in high school and college. What students, and often their parents, don’t realize is how entrenched these subjects have become in most careers.

“Some students don’t really know what STEM careers are,” says Patrick Escalante, who taught middle and high school math for more than a decade. “They’re not just research, which may sound boring to a kid.”

Then there’s STEM’s image problem. Kids who are insecure about fitting in or who associate being good at science and math with the unpopular group may be deterred from pursuing an interest in STEM subjects. “There’s still a big cultural problem. People put STEM in a box: the nerd box, a bunch of geeks in lab coats,” says Brian Kelly, editor and chief content officer of U.S. News & World Report.

Closing the gap

Educators, corporate leaders and policy makers increasingly recognize how important it is to avoid leaving behind economically disadvantaged students, African Americans, Hispanics, and girls when it comes to STEM education. Not only are these groups underrepresented in STEM fields, they report the least interest in STEM subjects. This has led to more funding, and in some schools, more participation.

For instance, KIPP Bay Area offers innovation labs and coding clubs beginning in Transitional Kindergarten through 12th grade. Of the students at KIPP’s 11 charter schools, 95 percent are minorities and 77 percent are eligible for free or reduced-priced lunch. Free online campaigns like Computer Science Education Week and Hour of Code also are exposing students who otherwise wouldn’t have access to STEM curriculum.

But while STEM awareness and resources are growing, there are still many schools that do not provide STEM learning opportunities to their students.

STEM begins at home

That’s why it’s important that parents act proactively to make sure their child is getting the exposure and training in STEM subjects that they’ll need to succeed. It’s easy in the early years; math and science fascinate young kids. “Younger children like math — counting, telling time,” says Escalante, who volunteers in her fourth grader’s math class at Junipero Serra Elementary in San Francisco. “But when they get older math becomes a concept instead of something tangible, and that can be scary.” And without positive exposure to STEM subjects in a way that relates to their lives, kids can lose interest and fall behind. Help your child crack the STEM learning code with these STEM-friendly pointers.

  • Point out the fruits of STEM

    It’s not difficult to make an appreciation for STEM studies a regular part of your interactions with your child, since evidence of STEM’s impact is all around you. Their favorite game app, the latest movie special effects, and the invention of candy that pops in your mouth are all courtesy of STEM.

  • Embrace “why” questions

    Young children love learning how things work and how they are connected. Ask questions that encourage exploration—why do you think it works like that? How could you figure it out? Encourage their endless “why” questions, and if you don’t know the answer, research with your child and find out the answer together.

  • Be a math booster

    If you have negative feelings about math or science, don’t let them influence your child. Saying things like “I was never good at math,” or “I always hated math” can lead your child to turn away from the subject experts say is most critical for their success. And rather than rewarding getting the right answer, reward persistence and diligence. The most important ingredient for success is the willingness to keep trying different ways to solve a problem, even when there are obstacles.

  • Bust the stereotypes

    Counteract the idea that math and science are for one particular type of person. If your child sees people who look like them thriving as doctors, scientific researchers, software engineers, architects, or data analysts, they’ll be better able to imagine themselves doing those jobs someday. Don’t be shy about reaching out to local STEM professionals and asking them to talk about what they do at your school’s career day, or to visit your child’s class (with the teacher’s permission).

  • Make constructive use of screen time

    In addition to websites like khanacademy.org and game apps like Hopscotch and Lego Mindstorms Fix the Factory, which introduce kids to coding, there are lots of entertaining, STEM-related ways your child and teen can use their screen time. Check out the YouTube show Physics Girl or the PBS Kids TV show SciGirls. TV shows like the BBC’s Life series, PBS’ NOVA, especially The Secret Life of Scientists & Engineers, and the Discovery Channel’s Planet Earth are also great choices for science-loving kids.

  • Seek science after hours

    Look for after-school, weekend and summer STEM programs and take advantage of ways to expose your child to STEM outside of school.

    Visit science museums at home or on vacation, and check your local museum’s website for camps and programs.
    Take a trip to the next Maker Faire happening near you.

    Blackgirlscode.org offers weekend workshops in cities around the country.

    FIRST Robotics offers the opportunity for kids at various ages to form teams and participate in robotics competitions with a professional mentor.

Six questions to ask your child’s school about STEM

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Updated: June 8, 2017