OPINION: In-Classroom Role Models Can Encourage Students to Pursue STEM Careers

By Ed Grenier
President & CEO

STEM workers are in fierce demand, and not just in places like Silicon Valley.

According to estimates from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, STEM professions will expand 1.7 times faster than non-STEM occupations. And given their growing demand, STEM careers today comprise some of the most lucrative employment, paying higher salaries and boasting far fewer threats of unemployment compared with non-STEM jobs. Furthermore, a study released by WalletHub this month named the Washington, D.C. region (“Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV”) the 9th best market for STEM professionals in the United States. 

These statistics reveal why we must continue to support efforts to engage more students in STEM classes in school and the programs that exist to build STEM-specific skills. But we must do more. And we must be strategic.

If we are to compete with other countries around the globe and prepare a generation of innovators, inventors, and entrepreneurs to solve our world’s most pressing challenges, we must make STEM exposure at a young age a bigger priority.

A study from MIT reveals that two-thirds of teens may be discouraged from pursuing STEM careers due to a lack of role models, even when they are interested in STEM. Other research shows that early interest and awareness of STEM careers is critical for teens seeking out and successfully completing STEM courses.

There’s something significant about coming face-to-face with an individual from your community, someone who looks just like you, who has pursued a career in STEM and succeeded. This kind of interaction is one that has the power to bridge the relevancy gap that exists for so many of today’s students and empower them to easily envision their futures.  

Put simply, if we want to encourage our young people to pursue any one of these lucrative careers, we must do more to expose them to STEM careers and the individuals who’ve chosen to pursue them—individuals who can bring the STEM acronym to life.

This is a challenge that we are taking seriously at Junior Achievement as we look toward our next century of work across the globe.  A 2016-17 JA Alumni study found that nearly 1 in 3 former JA students credits Junior Achievement for providing them with an idea of what to pursue as a career as an adult. Additionally, 1 in 5 says that as an adult they have worked or are currently working in the same field as the JA volunteer they had as a school student, illustrating the impact JA volunteers have as role models.

Let’s come together to put more STEM volunteers in classrooms across the region—and let’s open more STEM workplaces for job shadow events so that students can get an up-close look at what’s possible. 

If you are pursuing a career in a science, technology, engineering, or math field and would like to learn how you can join Junior Achievement to expose more students to STEM role models and workplaces, please visit www.myJA.org and considering signing up to volunteer.