The coming decades will usher great opportunities for high-paying jobs in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) industries, but if too few candidates enter the STEM education pipeline, those jobs could go unfilled. That is why it so important to reach out to today’s elementary and middle school students and get them excited about STEM careers. This outreach is especially relevant for underserved and underrepresented populations because the math and science proficiency of these students typically falls below the national average, making a STEM job sometimes seem out of reach.
NETL’s STEM Education Outreach Team strives to change that mindset by traveling to “at-risk” K-6 elementary and middle schools around the Lab’s Morgantown, West Virginia and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania sites to bring stimulating “hands-on, minds-on” activities that make the students feel like they are part of the STEM conversation.
“When we first arrive in the classroom, the students aren’t always enthusiastic about STEM,” said Casandra Hood of the Education Outreach team. “But, once we start building miniature roller coasters and looking at everyday objects through microscopes, their interest level goes way up. By the time we leave, they have a whole different outlook on STEM.”
When students’ perceptions of STEM change, their notions of their own limitations can evolve as well. Once the kids realize that science is within their grasp, they start developing positive attitudes about STEM topics.
“The students get really excited about the activities,” said Alicia Delmastro, another member of the Education Outreach team. “The engineering projects are the most popular. And we adapt them based on the age group. For older kids, we integrate more advanced STEM concepts, allowing them to calculate speeds and perform other more sophisticated observations.”
The stimulating presentations complement existing curricula, and the teachers, many of whom are not specifically STEM instructors, seem equally pleased with the team’s outreach.
“We receive enormously positive feedback,” said Mario Rybacki, Education Outreach team member. “It’s very fulfilling because the teachers are always telling us how much of an impression we made on the classroom. They can’t wait to have us back. In fact, many of them wish we could come back the very next week.”
While Hood, Delmastro and Rybacki visit the Pittsburgh and Morgantown regions, NETL researcher Circe Verba, Ph.D., leads the Lab’s STEM outreach efforts around Albany, Oregon, which is the location of NETL’s third research site. In addition to her energy research projects, Verba travels to K-8 classrooms, and while these students are not necessarily from “at-risk” student populations, reactions are equally positive.
“I love seeing students’ faces light up with smiles of wonder,” Verba said. “These moments are what kids remember that initially spark that life-long passion for STEM.”
While the team most often visits K-8 classrooms, the Lab’s outreach efforts are not limited to elementary students.
“NETL’s Education Outreach continues to provide positive impacts by targeting older students as well,” said head of NETL Education Outreach Ken Mechling. “At the middle and high school level, when students further develop their interest in STEM and start thinking about careers, NETL researchers like Circe visit the classroom to discuss more complex energy topics and the multiple, dynamic pathways that can lead to STEM careers.”
NETL’s K-12 STEM Education Outreach Team is making a real difference in the lives of students in the regions surrounding the Lab. This work investing in young people today will pay great dividends later, as some of these students will undoubtedly go on to enter the STEM education pipeline and become the energy researchers of tomorrow.
Find out more about NETL’s K-12 STEM educational outreach here.