Where to Begin with STEM Education
When NASA’s New Horizons makes its Pluto flyby this month, it’s not hard to imagine a new generation of students romanticizing the idea of a career in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics). Some might be taken by scientific discoveries. Others might be blown away with the project’s daring in engineering. And still others will be amazed simply by the mathematics and physics involved. The project’s incredible scale is sure to impress upon students the boundless possibilities awaiting those who pursue a career in STEM: from opportunities to shed scientific light upon the dark unknown, to the prospect of simply thinking mathematically, to the real-world feats of engineering that can take humanity’s gaze into the far reaches of our solar system.
These are exciting times, without a doubt.
But for a high school student looking to the stars, where to begin? What kind of high school preparation provides the thrust needed to soar into the collegiate realm of a prospective STEM-related course of study?
- First things first: the academic core. Whether a student is interested in biology, mathematics, or engineering, if she’s hoping to pursue that course of study at the university level, it’s best that she gets a good broad-based foundation in math and science during her high school years—that she takes a complement of classes in biology, physics, chemistry, and math through calculus. And if a student is aiming for selective colleges and universities, she will not only want to take as many of those courses at the highest level offered, she will want to round out her academic core each high school year with classes in English, social studies, and a world language.
- Explore your interests. While selecting classes based on the academic core might not leave much room for other subject matter, students can still explore their particular academic discipline of interest in co-curricular ways. Those drawn to the sciences might pursue time in the lab either in a national summer research program or perhaps in a program closer to home. I’ve even known students who’ve cold-called professors for more informal lab experiences. If engineering is a student’s main interest, the student could join a robotics team, do research within an engineering lab, or spend a summer at many a university’s engineering program. Someone with an interest in computer science might take advanced programming classes over the summer and perhaps use his skills at a research lab or volunteering for a non-profit. And someone with a love of math might do well exploring advanced math topics.
- Seek out mentors. Know any engineers? Ask if you might be able to have coffee with them to talk about their jobs. This could be the perfect opportunity to get a better feel for your area of interest. But don’t fret too much if your list of contacts is lacking in the STEM department — there are many ways to make up for that. I’ve worked with students who’ve joined their local astronomical societies, students who’ve attended public lectures at their local universities or science associations, students who’ve volunteered at the local science museum or hospital, and students who’ve asked their teachers if they might know someone in the student’s field of interest. Surrounding yourself with people who have a passion for a particular area of STEM almost guarantees you’re going to eventually meet someone within that STEM specialty. And meeting those people can make all the difference in the world in helping you discover, learn, and grow into your prospective discipline. Liftoff, indeed!