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Programs Nationwide Aim to Build Pipeline of STEM Experts

Amid predictions that careers in science, technology, engineering and math will skyrocket in the next decade, students are increasingly participating in targeted programs to boost their skills.

Students working at the Brooklyn STEAM Center
New York’s Brooklyn STEAM Center offers courses to high school students to earn certifications in fields like cybersecurity, design and engineering, and full-stack development.
Brooklyn STEAM Center
In 2021, the Bureau of Labor Statistics expected that science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) occupations would grow nearly 11 percent from then until 2031, compared to about 5 percent for all other jobs. The same year, Georgetown University projected China will produce nearly 40,000 more STEM Ph.D. graduates than the United States each year by 2025 onward. For the U.S. education system, the scramble is on to keep the nation competitive on a global scale and meet the growing demand for qualified professionals in information technology, smart manufacturing, data science, artificial intelligence and other STEM specializations.

Education officials and experts say partnerships between universities, schools, nonprofits and businesses will play a key role in establishing and supporting programs to train students and foster an early interest in STEM subjects, particularly among female and nonwhite students who are underrepresented in those fields.


According to Joaquin Tamayo, senior STEM lead for the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of the Deputy Secretary, there has been a big push in recent years at the local, state and federal levels, and among higher education institutions and K-12 schools, to tap into students’ interests and push them toward STEM fields. A major part of what makes some STEM programs more successful than others, he continued, is partnerships with employers, who can provide internships, expose students to STEM career opportunities and help students from underrepresented groups see their future selves working in a STEM field.

“Cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, computer science and coding [are big for STEM programming] in this country because students today are already digital natives,” he said. “They’re not just learning how to use social media on their phones and other apps and video games, but they actually know how [much of] that works, why it works, and how they can study and pursue [STEM] careers if they’re interested in that.”

As just one example of a successful STEM initiative, he pointed to the Brooklyn STEAM Center in New York, which teaches specialized courses for high schoolers so they can earn industry certifications in fields such as construction and technology, cybersecurity, design and engineering, film and media, and full-stack development. According to a report from the Brooklyn Paper, U.S. Deputy Secretary of Education Cindy Marten during a spring visit called the center a “perfect example” of a STEM initiative preparing students for a tech-integrated economy. The program began with about 200 students in 2019 and has since held courses for hundreds more high school students, mostly juniors and seniors, from partnering local schools. The center also offers internships with several employers, according to its website.

“Schools and districts often either can’t [launch these types of programs] by themselves, or they don’t have the resources or capacity, so they need to partner with others,” Tamayo said.

Students in a classroom at the Brooklyn STEAM Center
Brooklyn STEAM Center

According to Ali Crawford, a research analyst at Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology, another notable STEM program is the Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers (ITEST) program, a National Science Foundation (NSF) initiative that works to increase K-12 students’ interest in STEM careers. Crawford said the program introduces students to emerging tech fields such as artificial intelligence through summer camps, workshops and school-based programs, adding that the program pays special attention to students in rural communities who often lack access to advanced STEM education.

“From our perspective, federal programs like this one are exactly what’s needed when we say we need support for teachers and programming,” Crawford wrote in an email to Government Technology. “The U.S. education system is not uniform, which I believe is a strength, and so the one-size-fits-all approach does not work for schools across the country. What is beneficial for a high school in California might not be for a school in West Virginia. Programs like ITEST allow teachers, educators and academics to experiment with programming, curriculum and learning objectives that are best suited for students in their respective geographical areas.”

The National Science Foundation also supports internships for students globally on a project basis and through government partnership programs such as Canada Summer Jobs, which focuses on providing hands-on internships to students from underrepresented demographics, according to Pedro Sancha, president and CEO of the NSF. In an email to Government Technology, Sancha said these types of internship programs are an effective way of bringing more students into the STEM fold.

“Each internship at NSF is tailored to the areas of study and goals of the intern in combination with the needs of the team they are assigned to. Many interns support senior members of our organization so that they can learn the ins and outs of the department directly from a mentor,” he said. “For example, in Canada, we currently have an intern in our Supply Chain Food Safety team who is assisting account managers with larger customer accounts, helping to route questions regarding food safety audits. In our information technology team, another intern is serving as a key liaison between various teams and the IT department, working on developing solutions that support project life cycle activities, process improvements and more.”

Students working at the Brooklyn STEAM Center
Brooklyn STEAM Center


When it comes to STEM skills, cybersecurity is among the most in-demand subjects, according to recent data from Cyberseek that shows more than 1 million unfilled cybersecurity jobs in the United States. That number is expected to rise to almost 3.5 million by 2026 as employers across public- and private-sector industries continue struggling to find qualified applicants for IT security vacancies and other specialized IT management roles.

With growing demand for IT security professionals in mind, Lakota Local School District in Ohio established the Lakota Cyber Academy five years ago to equip students with cybersecurity skills and familiarize them with foundational IT concepts via courses and hands-on job training. The program offers three courses that prepare students for cybersecurity industry certifications, as well as internships with industry partners for students to gain hands-on experience.

“Given the pressing need to prepare students for a world that needs more cybersecurity expertise, I would challenge other districts to think about replicating this sort of Cyber Academy,” wrote Keith Krueger, CEO of the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), in a March 2023 blog post on edCircuit.

Andrew Wheatley, director of secondary curriculum at Lakota schools, told Government Technology the program allows students to gain demonstrative skills in cybersecurity through the help of partners like 5/3 Bank, U.S. Bank, Belcan, Kroger Technology and Sinclair Community College, where students can also take dual-enrollment credit courses.

“The vast majority of our students who take all three courses go on to major in cybersecurity at top colleges, go straight into the workforce or do both. Most of our [third course] kids get internships during the school year,” he said, noting that students also complete capstone projects to gain hands-on experience.

“We have a good number of students interning at U.S. Bank, Belcan and Standex Electronics this summer,” he added. “We currently have about 250 students signed up for this coming school year in our program. ... This past year, we had 16 students pass their test for ethical hacker pros certifications. We ended up having a 96 percent pass rate, which is interesting because the national pass rate for that exam is closer to the 40s. We also have students earning their CompTIA Security+ certification.”

Wheatley said that for STEM programming such as this to be successful, course lessons and activities should be centered on real-world learning to familiarize students with what it’s like to work in that field. In the case of Lakota’s program and others like it, he said, students engage in activities that teach them how to respond to cyber attacks like the ones plaguing both public- and private-sector industry workplaces in recent years.

“If you want to have really amazing student outcomes, you need to build up a program in conjunction with your local business and industry,” he said.

Student working on a technology project next to a laptop

Crawford, from Georgetown University, said another way to get students into STEM fields like cybersecurity is through competitions, such as the Air Force Association’s CyberPatriot National Youth Cyber Defense Competition, where students in middle and high school grades gain practical and industry-relevant cyber skills based on real-world cybersecurity scenarios.

According to an email from Rachel Zimmerman, national commissioner and senior director of business operations for CyberPatriot, the competition runs during the school year and puts teams of students in the role of system administrator of a small business. From there, she said, the competition sends students virtual operating systems that have cybersecurity vulnerabilities built in, and then tasks them with finding and fixing as many as possible.

“We feel that the fun, team-based competitive environment that we foster in CyberPatriot works to inspire students. By participating, they learn that they can solve real-world problems that are in demand,” Zimmerman wrote. “We need to build and support programs that spark the interest and build the skills of students for STEM fields much like Little League or other sports teams that students can join.”

This story originally appeared in the September issue of Government Technology magazine. Click here to view the full digital edition online.
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.