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STEM Career Events Are Key to Building Talent Pipeline

University of Missouri and Harvard-Smithsonian researchers found that “STEM Career Days” can build an early interest in STEM fields, which could help meet the demand for trained professionals and diversify the field.

STEM graphic showing the word "STEM" in bright red surrounded by a red box. There are illustrations of two children, a boy on the left of the box and a girl on the right, in bright blue. There are multiple symbols in the background of things like robots, graphs and laptops.
“Career-day” events focused on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) could play a major role in encouraging students to pursue those fields after high school, according to a recent study from the University of Missouri (MU).

The university’s 2023 study, conducted in collaboration with Harvard-Smithsonian researchers, found that STEM career events hosted by colleges and universities often build high school students’ awareness about post-secondary and career opportunities in related fields, which could help build the STEM talent pipeline. The study said that such “STEM career day” events could also play a role in diversifying STEM career fields where women and non-white workers often remain underrepresented.

The study analyzed a nationwide survey by Harvard University that asked nearly 16,000 college students if they had attended a STEM career event hosted by a higher-education institution during high school. It said that students who had participated were 30 percent more likely to say they were interested in a STEM career than those who hadn’t. The research also found that such career events were equally effective at promoting STEM interests regardless of background characteristics and level of academic preparation.

“Now that we have found that this type of intervention works for turning that potential interest in STEM into career aspirations in STEM, we can work on designing these interventions in a way to be even more effective and accessible to develop a more diverse STEM workforce,” Michael Williams, a survey analyst and assistant professor in the MU College of Education and Human Development, said in a public statement. “If you want someone to be good at something, you want them to develop a sense of efficacy, which is about putting them in a position where they can see themselves doing it and succeeding at it, and seeing other people that look like them doing it as well.”

The research comes as schools, universities and workforce-development initiatives across the U.S. are trying to encourage early interest in STEM careers, such as the Brooklyn STEAM Center in New York, which offers specialized high school courses for students to earn industry certifications in fields like full stack development and cybersecurity; and the National-Science Foundation’s Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers (ITEST) program, where students are introduced to emerging tech careers through summer camps, workshops and school-based programs.

Williams said MU also launched its own community outreach initiatives in recent years to expose K-12 students to STEM topics, such as STEM Cubs, a free program for K-8 students who are historically underrepresented in STEM education and career opportunities.

“By allowing them to learn about scientific concepts and how they relate to everyday life, the program helps them build interest in science and science-based careers,” he said in a public statement.

According to the news release, Williams said when he pursued a master’s degree in computer information technology, he was often the only Black student in courses like computer engineering, which he said appeared disproportionately made up of international students. In addition to meeting a growing demand for qualified professionals in information technology, smart manufacturing, data science, artificial intelligence and other STEM specializations, Williams said STEM career days could be the key to making the U.S. more competitive on a global scale.

“The United States trails a lot of global competitors in the production of STEM talent, especially in areas like sophisticated technology and quantitative methodologies,” Williams said in a statement. “The National Science Foundation has pushed for broadening participation in STEM fields and increasing diversity for populations that have previously been excluded from STEM-related opportunities. So, I am passionate about reaching people earlier in the educational pipeline and seeing what interventions help turn interest into career aspiration.”
Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.