Science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) has emerged has an educational buzzword over the last few years. K-12 schools, higher education and non-formal educational programs alike have all increased their efforts to improve STEM learning and outcomes.
This effort comes in direct response to President Obama's "Educate to Innovate" campaign, launched in 2009. The national problem this campaign addresses is twofold: American students are lagging behind other countries in achievement measures in these subjects. Further, U.S. Department of Labor data show that of the 20 fastest growing occupations projected for 2014, 15 of them require significant mathematics or science preparation, but our young people lack the skills and training to fill these jobs.
Most STEM educational initiatives take a human capital approach. This approach says that an investment in young people's skills and knowledge will yield an economic return because young people gain the skills to participate in the labor market.
This approach doesn't go far enough. It does not address the less obvious social conditions that address how young people can actually translate the skills they learn in STEM education into a profession. Youth programs need to address this gap, too.
In contrast to the human capital approach, the Amartya Sen capabilities approach provides a framework for looking at the role that social, material or institutional conditions play in enabling (or restricting) young people to perform well in in their educationally pursuits and more importantly, to make the choice to pursue STEM-related professions. In other words, the capabilities approach does not just look at the skills young people have, but at the set of opportunities they have available to them to actually use these skills in a way that they value.
For example, imagine if a young person masters engineering skills and dreams of becoming an engineer, but doesn't know how to apply to college. What if she sees no female role models in the field, and believes it's not a real option for her because she's a girl? In order for STEM education to be of value to young people, we cannot solely train them with knowledge and skills. We must look at and address the set of opportunities they have to put these skills to use in a way that is meaningful to them.
Minnesota 4-H youth development is working to expand young people's opportunities to pursue STEM fields. We recently received a round of CYFAR funding to develop STEM youth programs designed for lower-income, middle-school aged youth living in Minneapolis and St. Paul who are part of the lower end of the achievement gap and not involved with youth programs. This program model is designed to work with youth across their many social settings -- connecting their education to their family and community contexts.
The hallmark of these programs will be working with youth to develop an educational plan connecting their learning to higher education. We'll take young people to university campuses where they can connect with mentors in the field and experience campus life.
Do you take a capabilities approach? How else might we expand young people's set of opportunities to pursue STEM related professions through education? What program inputs might shape young people's opportunities to pursue STEM?
-- Joanna Tzenis, assistant Extension professor, Children, Youth and Families at Risk (CYFAR)
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