Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Education and How To Get Your Children Interested

By Dr. Irving Pressley McPhail, President and CEO, NACME (National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering, Inc.)

Not too long ago, I went to visit my daughter and my grandson. I was extremely excited to see them both, and shortly after my arrival, I gave my grandson a small Lego set. He’s three but ever since he could sit up and play, I have been giving him educational toys; the kinds of toys that encourage children to use their minds and keep them actively engaged, rather than do the thinking for them. My daughter gave me the look. I didn’t pay it much attention. My daughter believes that parents should not exert undue influence on the career decisions of their children. I ignored the look and reminded her that I want my grandson to become an engineer.

Lately, it seems as if everywhere you turn, more and more people are discussing  STEM education and STEM careers in the context of U.S. competitiveness in the “flat” world. But why is this so important, and what is STEM anyway? STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. These fields are important because they are at the core of America’s success so far. Since before the Second World War, the United States has enjoyed a place of prominence in technology and innovation. For decades the U.S. economy was driven by our products and designs. Unfortunately, the United States started losing its grip on that position and it is now at a critical juncture.

The solution to America’s competitiveness problem is to activate the hidden workforce of young men and women who have traditionally been underrepresented in STEM careers—African Americans, American Indians, and Latinos. My organization, the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering, Inc. (NACME), has been focused like a laser on this challenge and opportunity for nearly four decades. These groups represent some of the fastest growing segments of the U.S. population today. More importantly, we firmly believe that diversity drives innovation and that its absence imperils our designs, our products and, most of all, our creativity – all components of competitiveness.

I know you may be thinking, ‘Great! But how do I get my child interested in STEM?’
President Obama’s push for a nationwide STEM curriculum is a step in the right direction but this effort will be much more successful if parents and families play an active role. As an educator, I cannot say enough about the role parents play in their child’s education. Parents are the first role models children are exposed to.  This is why parents should be the ones to give them the initial introduction to these fields. Luckily, this really isn’t as difficult as it may first seem. You just have to be a dedicated parent.  The simplest way to do this is to find ways to make STEM careers relatable. Just about all children come into contact with something that is possible because of the work of an engineer or a STEM professional. Whether it’s a video game, music, a computer, a cell phone or even if they have an affinity for high-tech automobiles, these were all created by an engineer.

The National Science Teachers Association believes the involvement of parents and other caregivers is crucial to their children’s interest in and ability to learn science. As a parent, you do not have to have an extensive knowledge of math and science; you just have to encourage them to take on the problems presented to them. Once that initial introduction is established, continue to cultivate that interest. Actively involved parents in a child’s schooling, greatly helps schools build an appreciation for science and technology. This holds true throughout the school-age years, from preschool through college.

All parents will inevitably be confronted with the, ‘this is hard,’ argument. My solution to that is letting them know that being wrong is not necessarily a bad thing. And, yes, some problems will be hard, but it doesn’t make them impossible. Encourage them to embrace the prospect of meeting challenges head on. Being wrong is part of the learning process. Encourage your children to observe, ask questions, explore, and seek their own understandings of a variety of subject areas.

As a family, actively engage with your children during mealtime discussions or group games requiring mental skills, or by talking about books they are reading or television programs about science they have watched. There are numerous DVDs available that provide access to science in fun ways.

Parents can also encourage children to participate in extracurricular opportunities focused on STEM, such as clubs, field trips, after-school programs, and science research competitions. Another, more hand-on approach, is to remain informed about the science program at your children’s school. Learn more about the school’s curriculum and the amount of time devoted to science learning and hands-on laboratory experiences at each grade level. Some parents go as far as becoming involved with the local school board to ensure that science learning is a top priority in the school system, but to also ensure that the resources are available.

Another good thing to remember when introducing your children to STEM fields is that these careers are some of the most lucrative career options out there. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, engineering careers comprise 11 of the 15 top-earning degree fields, with Petroleum Engineering, Chemical Engineering, Mining Engineering, and Computer Engineering occupying the top four positions at $83, 121; $64, 902; $64,404, and $61, 738, respectively.

As we watched my grandson immersed in building structures with his newly opened Lego set, my daughter turned to me and asked, “How do you know he’ll be an engineer?” My reply was simple. “I don’t. But I wanted you to become a physician, and you became a licensed clinical psychologist with a doctoral degree instead. I encouraged you every step of the way, and that worked. So I’m going to encourage him every step of the way until he becomes an engineer.”