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Let’s help illuminate STEM career pathways for youth

By Rebecca Meyer

Sunbeam shining on path
I recently encountered a video clip from the renowned Minnesota author, Nora McInerny, where she states a response to the question: “What is something you didn’t know until an embarrassingly late age?” Her response: “I was in college, late college, an honors college student before I realized engineering majors were not learning to drive trains.”

I find that all too often, the careers into which young people aspire are opaque. Like Nora’s perceptions of engineering, these youth may not really know what’s involved or necessary to navigate a successful pathway into their chosen career. This has me wondering more about the types of support that are important to help youth chart these pathways, especially as it relates to STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

In STEM, we often focus on initiating sparks using the engineering design process or science inquiry through a variety of programs and activities, like the 4-H Engineering Design Challenge program. This content-specific youth programming aims to stimulate interest in STEM, and broadly in the work of engineering and other related disciplines. These well-designed high quality STEM learning opportunities often only touch the surface of the possibilities in non-formal settings, like 4-H. I believe we are risking sparking the light of interest in our youth participants without helping them illuminate pathways to follow into a workforce that needs them.

For example, my oldest son is 16 years old and has had a spark for aviation and becoming a jet pilot since preschool. He has participated in multiple programs and camps that provided hands-on learning opportunities designing gliders and rockets, and exploring ideas of engineering to flame his spark. And he’s continued strong studies in math and science. These opportunities continue to stimulate interest but have not necessarily given him much insight into the schooling, skills, or experiences necessary for flying jets. It was by happenstance, for instance, that he learned at a recent college visit day that computer science is a benchmark for collegiate engineering programs, and subsequently for admission into air force flight training. 

Research suggests that young people pursuing STEM professions often fall off the STEM pathway, and that many who enter STEM careers end up doing so through adjacent entries. As non-formal educators, I believe we can do a better job at helping youth understand pathways and requirements for STEM careers, deepening their sparked interests to develop those things then we might improve the flow into and stop the leak out of STEM. Some ideas to support this include: Programming for STEM interested youth that helps them develop college competitive skills, like programming in Python for engineering students. We could also help youth seek and develop relationships with career professionals who could serve as guides in helping them resolve their aspirations and plot a path. 

It seems ever-more important during middle adolescence for us to consider the additional support we can incorporate for meaningful engagement after the spark is ignited into our youth programs and identify strategies to support this personal development. While each path is unique in the post education to career pathway, how do we more intentionally work to open opportunities and access for youth to support their pursuits while helping to identify those important next steps and connections?

-- Rebecca Meyer, Extension educator

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  1. I appreciate that you’ve written this with the backdrop of STEM, and that you’ve not limited the concept of “spark” and “illuminated pathways” to STEM. As non-formal educators, we rightly need to be intentional about considering the whole path and not just the spark that is the first step. Two points come to mind with regards to that intentionality:
    1. We don’t need to build the path, but we do need to map it out before we light sparks. The path may be paved with different opportunities or organizations that can continue to fuel that spark, but we should know who/where they are so we can guide youth to them.
    2. Meaningful experiences for youth include not only subject related content that light a spark, but also the right conditions for that spark to thrive - positive youth development. Particularly in STEM, but not exclusive to STEM, it is rare to have content expertise and youth development expertise exist in one person. I’ve found the most meaningful, successful, and sustainable experiences, typically involve a facilitator with content expertise AND a facilitator with positive youth development expertise.

    Your blog also causes me to consider Minnesota Compass’s frameworks for STEM education ( An earlier version encouraged us to consider the needs of age groups with regards to building pathways to a STEM professional. The current version encourages us to think about STEM growth in three areas: identity, interest, and achievement. Both frameworks are important to consider as we spark and illuminate pathways.

    Thank you for shedding light on this important topic!


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