You Can Stick with STEM (If You Really Want to)
Black Enterprise Magazine September/October 2018 Issue

STEM job growth is projected to exceed that of non-STEM jobs. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, between 2014 and 2024, more than 2.6 million STEM jobs will need to be filled, yet half of Americans think that more students don’t pursue STEM degrees because STEM subjects are too difficult.

That’s according to recent poll results reported by the Pew Research Center, which also polled non-STEM workers who had at one time considered a career in STEM.

Barriers to STEM Careers

Of those polled, a greater percentage cited cost and time barriers than the difficulty of STEM. In my own family, I learned recently that my niece had once considered medical school because of a high school course that left her fascinated with animal anatomy. But the math demands scared her off.

A cousin who had been the No. 1 student in her class from kindergarten through 12th grade had also planned to pursue medicine, but she was discouraged by—like the Pew respondents—the cost and time commitments of medical school.

Completing a STEM Degree

I asked my cousin Andy, a scientist at UAB Division of Clinical Immunology and Rheumatology in Alabama, how he’d managed to stick with STEM.

He wrote in a lengthy email that what helped him most was having great teachers. I should mention that Andy was born and raised in Barbados and didn’t attend American schools until college.

Andy tutors high school students, “mainly in ACT and SAT college prep skills and study skills,” he told me. He finds that his students’ teachers are “skipping over things … for whatever reason (too much pressure to cover too many topics in a limited amount of time; large class size, etc.) … and students become discouraged because they find it hard to understand some concepts, especially in the absence of additional help from teachers.”

Andy wrote fondly of his own 8th-grade science teacher and how she’d had him enthralled with the “four-stroke combustion engine in automobiles.” His senior teacher inspired his interest in biology with a fruit fly genetics project.

“My point is this: I think that capable, nurturing teachers are key to keeping students interested in science. What worked for me was the constant encouragement from my teachers,” Andy says.

To supplement what teachers skip over, he recommends that students use online resources, YouTube in particular.

“YouTube has fantastic 10- to 15-minute presentations on almost all topics in high school math and biology (and perhaps other STEM subjects). Teachers from around the country upload short presentations that are sharply focused on single concepts. By refining their search terms, students can locate relevant material on almost all areas of biology and math.”

He also encourages students to watch several presentations even if they all seem the same. “More often, each gives a slightly different way of viewing the concepts. I believe that these presentations can fill in for shortcomings in classroom lectures or for missed topics and can help students better understand the concepts.”

In the end, Andy told me that his own desire to study biology propelled him over barriers of uninspiring or outright racist professors: “I really wanted to study biology, so I didn’t let things get in the way.”

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