Mar 12, 2012 | Newsroom

The need for more science, technology, engineering, and math professionals has never been more apparent—but how do we inspire students to dedicate their careers to these subjects? Interacting with professionals who are passionate about STEM is one of the best ways to spark lifelong enthusiasm in students by first showing them real-life connections between STEM and their everyday lives. How do students find these STEM mentors?

Communities are forming informal STEM networks nationwide to facilitate mentorships between students and community experts involved in STEM careers. Industry and academia is brimming with STEM professionals eager to impart knowledge about STEM to another generation of students. The challenge is to connect these professionals with students. (Read More)

One program that has already proven to be successful is the National Lab Network (, an initiative that matches teachers and students with members of the STEM community. Originally known as “National Lab Day,” the program began by connecting schools with 200 educational, scientific, and engineering organizations nationwide to work together on interactive projects related to STEM. Because of its popularity, what started as a one-day event has evolved into an ongoing, collaborative network of schools and community leaders.

Teachers are encouraged to go to the National Lab Network website and request community support by posting information about their STEM classroom projects. Next, they are matched with local STEM volunteers including university STEM students and faculty, scientists, engineers, professionals, and other community members involved in STEM. Projects can range from helping students with science fairs to coordinating or hosting field trips to mentoring a student – the opportunities are limitless.

Orange County leaders and educators have joined this national movement. Through a partnership with the national initiative, National Lab Network-Orange County (CA) supports local educators and STEM businesses in not only linking people, but providing resources.

According to Sue Neuen of the California Science Center, “National Lab Network has helped classrooms become community classrooms.” What Neuen hopes teachers will learn is that the National Lab Network should also be used for everyday science lessons.

“Teachers can even ask STEM professionals to assist with classroom labs,” Neuen said.

National Lab Network-Orange County has gone a step further to involve the community by hosting science events at night. “Ask a Scientist Night” at the Irvine Unified School District enabled students to talk to local STEM experts about ideas for science projects. Similarly, the Santa Ana Unified School District partnered with a community college to bring students “Science Nights.” The Science Nights featured multiple rounds of STEM speakers who provided valuable insights to students of all grade levels.

Another pilot program in Los Angeles, California represents a truly unique approach to STEM education based on community engagement. Funded by the U.S. Department of Defense, STEM-Up ( ) seeks to change how STEM subjects are perceived by low-income, under-served communities across the country. Boyle Heights, a community in East Los Angeles, has served as the pilot community for the initiative with a Hispanic population of 94 percent. What separates STEM-Up from other education initiatives is its truly collaborative approach to involving the whole community, not just a specific segment.

Working directly with school administrators, many of STEM-Up’s activities take place in the classroom, and are customized to meet the individual needs of each school. STEM-Up is not a replacement for STEM curricula; instead the initiative complements what is already being taught in STEM classes. STEM-Up organizers participate in faculty and administrator meetings, contribute to homework workshops, and support college fairs and competitions. The initiative places a strong emphasis on parent involvement – back to school nights, math nights, and bilingual workshops to explore higher education options with parents. Teachers are recruited by STEM-Up to become “teacher ambassadors” for their schools, and are given a stipend that goes towards STEM activities on campus.

The participation of 115 college students from local universities in southern California has significantly contributed to the success of STEM-Up. These “College Captains” share many similarities with STEM-Up participants – 95 percent growing up in underrepresented communities. With 91 percent of College Captains majoring in STEM subjects, they are excellent role models for students in the Boyle Heights community.

Has the STEM-Up initiative been successful? One study found that a greater number of students, parents, teachers, administrators, and community leaders recognized the importance of STEM careers after STEM-Up. Additionally, more than 80 percent of middle and high school students who participated in STEM-Up indicated they plan to attend college. STEM-Up is determined to expand household conversations about STEM and increase community outreach through events in the future. This is one initiative that is radically trying to enhance STEM education with greater integration of the entire community.

Because of the relatively low numbers of female STEM professionals, many communities are coordinating gender-specific STEM mentorship programs.

At the university level, gender-focused mentorships are improving retention rates among female students in STEM majors.

Washington State University’s WSU Women’s Mentorship Program has been connecting female Engineering students with alumni involved in STEM professions. Mentors talk to students about life as an engineer, and serve as a connection to the larger engineering community. While some mentors spend time tutoring students, others meet informally for coffee or take students to their workplaces to provide insight into the day-to-day activities of an engineer. According to Dr. Cara Poor, a Clinical Assistant Professor in the Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering, students are matched with mentors based on their interests and disciplines, as well as hometown and geographic location. The program encourages mentors to reach out to students at least once a month by email, phone, or face-to-face meetings. Dr. Poor adds that the relationships formed through the mentorship program have even lead to internship opportunities for some students.

Since 2008, retention rates have significantly increased among female students enrolled in engineering courses at WSU. Between 2003 and 2009, 49 percent of female engineers who came to WSU dropped out of their program by the end of freshmen year – compared to 32 percent in 2010. The program, which consists of 90 students and 61 mentors, has been so successful WSU is considering possibly including male engineers in the future.

By way of more integration, organizations, professionals, volunteers, and universities are all contributing to the advancement of STEM education in schools. Throughout these examples there is a common theme: STEM education is increasingly becoming a collaborative effort. As more community programs become available, STEM professionals can provide students with greater insight into the practical application of STEM subjects.

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