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Turning STEM skills into STEM capabilities

Joanna-Tzenis.jpgWhat real opportunities do youth have to pursue STEM-related professions? Learning engineering skills is one thing, but knowing how to become an engineer is something else.

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.

stem-youth.JPGIn 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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  1. I work to take a capabilities approach...though it can be quite difficult to say what conditions will provide the opportunity (or restrict) for future success. Currently I am working with partners to design a program plan that will increase the number of entrants into medical programs.
    What can we do to provide the opportunities? It is an interesting that doesn't only lead to specific skill or content learning experiences.
    Where do you think a program should start when using a capabilities approach?

  2. Thanks for your comment, Mark. I think one important step is to do the research and understand the context in which the youth are living in school, at home, etc. This will vary from community to community and from youth to youth. For example, what is the community's perception of the program's target youth? Do the youth have social network that consist of people who encourage them to pursue STEM and higher education. Do they know that it is possible? For instance, the CYFAR program is designed to expand youth's social networks by facilitating relationships with current undergraduates and university faculty members.
    Let's look at what seems to be an exciting program design you are working on. What set of opportunities might influence a person's choice to enter a medical program? Do they know what steps need to be taken to qualify and apply for this program? Do they have anyone in their life who have inspired them and can help them in their pursuit? Are they currently in an education system that supports their learning and is preparing them for this next step in life?
    Sen (1993) gives some pretty clear examples that help me understand the capabilities approach. For example, a person who cannot afford food and a person who willingly fasts are both hungry. The result is the same, but their opportunities are different. To offer an educational example, one student may not gain admittance to a medical program because they had a poor science program at school and no place to study quietly at home and thus were not prepared. On the other hand, a young person may have premier science program at school and her own personal study space, but blows off her homework to spend time with friends. As a result, she is also not prepared and does not gain admittance. Same result. Different set of opportunities. An example like this means that if we want to be effective in our work, cannot just pay attention to the result (e.g. admittance numbers, standardized test results) but to the set of opportunities available to the youth (as well as what they do with the opportunities). Depending on our target audience's contexts, we might want our programs to influence their social networks, the quality of the learning in the program, or youth motivation. The first step is to understand the social arrangements in which the young person resides.
    Thanks again for your meaningful comments, Mark.

  3. It is a great post. Many studies suggest a role model is very important for economically disadvantaged youth. It is also important for them to see the opportunities that they can do it. Thank you for sharing.

  4. Thanks for this great post, Joanna! It’s timely, as I too have been thinking about the Capabilities Approach as it relates to our Center’s work to addressing the achievement gap. It has helped me think about what real opportunities we as a society need to ensure young people have rather than just which individual competencies or skills we need to ensure they develop. I also like that it shifts the purpose towards the development of an engaged citizenry rather than just a strong workforce.


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