What do you want to be when you grow up? My answer at age five was birdwatcher. I had been absolutely captivated by a few National Geographic bird episodes. To my young mind, the TV presenter's job was birdwatcher and that seemed like an ideal profession. From the limited number of jobs I had been exposed to, it seemed the most enjoyable. The issue is that I didn’t know how to achieve that goal—I didn’t have role models or a clear career pathway.
How can children know what they want to be when they grow up without exposure to the possibilities?
During grade school and high school, it wasn't clear to me how the science taught in school could be applied as a career. Knowing that academic problem solving is a step toward larger goals of interest is critical. Academics' presentations and personalities can strongly attract or repel a young mind. As a child, I knew that being a scientist was an option, but I didn't know many women scientists or how many different fields of science there were. Early science education also doesn't touch upon all the other roles in science that are equally important to support research.
It's not clear to young students that if they study STEM, their job can be so much more than just solving equations. They could be roboticists. They could be artists with a focus on molecular structure. They could work on developing the instrumentation that unlocks a cure for cancer.
But for that to happen, they first need to be exposed to all the facets of STEM to find what interests them. Once you narrow down their interest, you can show them how what they learned in class can actually be applied in the real world, including the breadth of opportunities available to them.
Introducing young children to STEM
For young children, it is easiest to introduce them to careers in STEM with two basic tools: storybooks and STEM activities.
People of all ages relate to stories because stories organize an experience and make complicated ideas easier to understand. Exposing young children to books that incorporate diverse science careers and role models is a way to get kids excited about science and show them how to apply their passion. A great example is Shark Lady: The True Story of How Eugenie Clark Became the Ocean's Most Fearless Scientist by Jess Keating.
In terms of activities, something as simple as the classic vinegar and baking soda experiment can be performed in a multitude of ways to discuss different aspects of science. I recently purchased a baking soda and vinegar rocket kit, which can blast 50 meters into the air. Armed with basic kitchen items as fuel, this is a fun hands-on activity related to rocket science (highly rated by my kids).
Promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion in STEM
Although some strides have been made to diversify the industry, STEM careers are still dominated by White men. To help enact change, young nonbinary people, people with disabilities, and women, especially those of color, among other groups, need to be able to find STEM mentors and role models with whom they identify. Representation matters and that's why it is imperative that we elevate diverse science role models.
With simple tools, you can inspire the next generation of scientists to hopefully create a more diverse and inclusive industry.