One of K-12 education's biggest goals is to inspire and inform students in preparation for different career paths, but are we incorporating this into our school systems?
Based on our school experiences, we are not.
Time again, we see classmates become disinterested in a specific subject, suggesting an underlying issue in our K-12 education system, especially in STEM classes. The crux of the problem is the curriculum. With courses being curriculum-driven and achievement-oriented, the environment makes it such that one indicator of poor performance is enough to turn students away from a subject entirely.
As the byproducts of the K-12 STEM curriculum, we have both felt incapable in certain STEM subjects due to the high stakes and the lack of a role model in STEM. Our internship with the Institute for Systems Biology, located in Seattle, WA, changed that. This past summer, six other interns and we were given the opportunity to meet and learn from STEM professionals in careers unknown to us. We met pioneers in STEM fields of many genders and ethnicities, a stark difference from the old white men in our biology textbooks. When I (Ayushi) heard that there was a female software engineer of color doing active research in developing clinical models at a biology research institute, I was utterly blown away. I had never heard of such a career that was so immersive in both of my passions. And when I (Sara) was able to see a woman of color in a successful healthcare career, I was inspired to keep following my interest in medicine. That’s when it hit us:
If they can do it, we can do it.
We believe this feeling is foreign to the millions of students sharing our classroom seats. It’s unacceptable. We need to integrate inspiration and career exploration into the current STEM curriculum.
Embedding careers naturally into curricula enables students to learn about various fields and see themselves in these professional identities. Studies show that students form these identities as early as 12 years old (1), making this type of education even more paramount. Students in the K-12 education system come from very diverse backgrounds, similar to those that comprise our professional workforce. But, this diversity isn’t represented in STEM fields. Many students in marginalized groups don’t see themselves pursuing a STEM career due to the inexposure to their versions of “if they can do it, we can do it.” In the name of equity, everyone deserves the chance to be connected to and inspired by professionals they identify with. By connecting students to potential role models, we give them a chance to reshape their vocational identities, and thereon, their futures.
For many schools, if we tried addressing this problem last year, it would have been difficult to find connections and make them available in classrooms. Now we have the tools to easily bring scientists to students remotely. Zoom interviews can mimic the field-trip/classroom speaker experience with the added benefit of reaching more diverse interview panelists. In doing so, we would be incorporating inclusive diversity in STEM classrooms and showcasing to students that their unique identities and perspectives can positively impact their future career fields. We don’t even have to restrict ourselves to interviewing professionals — instead, we can now connect to public events, town halls, and research showcases, all from the click of a button.
The bottom line is we’re in the midst of an educational revolution where we see influxes in funding for extra support, teacher preparation programs, and tech for students. We need to actively take the initiative to shape our system to model the future we want tomorrow. Let’s integrate career connections and make the “if they can do it, we can do it” a reality for Every. Single. Student.
Ayushi is a senior at Eastlake High School who aspires to study computer science or biomedical engineering. Sara is a senior at Garfield High School who hopes to become an oncologist in the future.