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Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Grade Levels for S.T.E.M. Career Awareness

Last night I was at a book fair with the STEM careers book and got a chance to talk to people face-to-face about the concept of career awareness for kids. Some were educators, some parents, even a few home schoolers. Most wanted to know what was a good age to start career exploration. A few commented that it was for high school students. Au contraire, career exploration could, and should, begin in the elementary grades. It makes sense that from the very beginning, kids have an underlying understanding of why they are in school, that they have a future, that the world is larger and more complex than they can imagine. Most importantly, that they can do whatever they want. They can follow their dreams and they will succeed. But dreams need a context, or a framework. If the dream is to save animals, how does that parlay into a career and a job that will support them and make them happy?

The elementary students in the picture are talking to astronauts at NASA. They are having an interactive conversation with an adult they would never have otherwise met if it weren't for the videoconference equipment in their school. Kids are curious about the lives of adults and they ask questions about how did they get to be astronauts. This experience will stick with them for a long time and certain classes may have more meaning as they work their way through school. They will remember the astronaut who told them that he or she had to study math, science, engineering, and technology on their way to becoming as astronaut.

It is especially life-changing for a young girl to encounter a female scientist or engineer. She learns that girls can do all kinds of things in life, anything that boys can do, anything they want to do.

By the time students are in middle school they are beginning to form real interests that can be nutured by role models and mentors. There are many many professional organizations that now have a presence on the Internet and most offer programs online for K-12 students and teachers. A link or RSS feed from a relevant site could provide dynamic information feeds for classrooms. NASA is a good example, but in just about any area of interest, from science to the arts, there are professional organizations with websites and Facebook pages, Nings and blogs that are informative and safe.

Technology in the classroom can be used effectively by teachers in the know to broaden the world for students of all ages. When they interact with researchers, field-workers, and all kinds of professionals doing work that young people are interested in, learning takes on a new dimension. If the student whose dream it is to save endangered species has opportunities to interact with scientists at the Audubon Society, to see what they do, learn what their job is called, they are at once engaged in life and in learning.

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