Three, two, one… blast off! As the only female on an all-male crew, Dr. Sandra H. “Sandy” Magnus took advantage of the opportunity to pursue her 26-year-long dream. Since her middle school years she wanted to explore outer space. Dr. Magnus applied and received entrance into NASA Astronaut Corps in 1996. She later flew into space on the STS-112 shuttle mission in 2002 and then again on the last shuttle flight STS-135 in 2011.
Magnus stood as a guest speaker at the 2016 K-12 STEM Symposium: Opportunities in science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM) on March 12, 2016. “You engage thinking one thing and as you get involved you learn that there are so many other opportunities out there,” said Magnus. Speaking to a large crowd of kids, parents, teachers and STEM professionals, Magnus was able to engage multiple generations in conversations on how she took advantage of opportunities to pursue her dream. After she outlined her career path and encouraged attendees to engage in STEM fields she was presented the STEM Champion award. WashingtonExec chose her this year in recognition of her continued dedication to STEM and student outreach.
“I was a curious child, I drove my parents crazy, because I was always asking why. Why does the moon look so big? Why does the moon appear to be following us when we’re driving in the car? Why is the sky blue...,” said Magnus. Her parents, with little background in STEM, remained patient and wanted to foster her curiosity. They encouraged her to find how the world works and take advantage of advanced STEM coursework in school. Realizing that there was a path for her dream she reflected on her tenure at the national core of NASA. “I got to continually learn new things and get exposed to new things the whole time…,” said Magnus. In her 16 years at NASA, she traveled, learned the Russian language, photography, robotics, how to take space walks, draw her own blood, life sciences and how to fly an aircraft.
As a three-time former astronaut and current Executive Director of the AIAA, Magnus offered attendees encouragement to engage relentlessly in the STEM fields. “I’m just a normal kid from a small town in the middle of the country,” said Magnus. As a young girl born and raised in Belleville, Illinois, she doubted her ability to become an astronaut. She is an ordinary individual who has done extraordinary things in her lifetime. She urged the students present to dreams big and guaranteed that if paired with hard work and imagination, the attendees could also accomplish great things. “It’s really easy to doubt yourself. For all you young people out there, if you have a dream, then go for it, don’t doubt yourself, because you can do anything,” said Magnus.
For Virginians, including the over 3,000 Northern Virginia residents who gathered for the symposium, the opportunities to dream big and pursue STEM related careers will become endless. At the beginning of the year a new legislative package was announced by Governor Terry McAuliffe's administration. The law calls for students to be prepared to become successful members of the new Virginia economy.
“Virginia, as one of the highest growth states for STEM and health related jobs, has a challenge to fulfil STEM jobs,” said Elizabeth Creamer, a Workforce Development adviser for the administration. Creamer attributes the unfilled jobs to skill gaps. “The number of jobs and the number of workforce ready candidates are not equal,” said Creamer. There are three tiers of STEM skill level: high, middle and low. Last year there were more than 175,000 job vacancies in Virginia across these skill levels. Middle skill level jobs make up the greatest proportion of the workforce skills. These jobs require more than a high school diploma, but less than a bachelor’s degree paying more than $28 an hour.
“There is a significant amount of work being done,” said Creamer, when reflecting on STEM initiatives at the national and state level. “Education is a very local issue that varies across the country,” said Melissa Moritz, the Deputy Director of STEM at the DoED. When reflecting on statistics within STEM educational opportunities she notes that there are significant differences in the representation of diverse gendered, racial and socioeconomic populations. “All kids deserve an excellent STEM education and access to STEM in and out of school,” said Moritz when reflecting on the Educate to Innovate campaign under President Obama’s administration.
“STEM is creative and collaborative,” said Moritz. When asked about specific STEM skills, Moritz highlighted problem solving, critical thinking, data analysis, computational thinking and reasoning to be critical to STEM workforce success and transferable to other fields. STEM opens doors and states that improve the STEM performance of their youth will be prepared to take advantage of business opportunities STEM presents. “Our kids are born scientist and engineers, but we still have a long way to go in the conversation of equity and ensuring that all really does mean all," said Moritz. The STEM workforce currently reflects the overall gaps in terms of diverse populations’ ability to access and complete equitable high quality STEM opportunities. “There are examples of teachers, schools and districts working around the clock," said Moritz when asked about the opportunities and resources for students across the United States.
Of those administrators there is Robin Best, M.Ed., an Administrative Dean in a Richmond Public Middle School. “Foundational stepping stones must be put in place to create an early path for STEM success and get rid of disconnect between skills taught in schools versus the actual workplace,” said Best. The Virginian educational community is made up of other administrators and teachers in schools who see themselves as advocates and provide exposure and accessibility to STEM programming opportunities in the workplace. As a representative of the STEM workplace, Chris Carter, the Deputy Director of Virginia Space Grant Consortium, echoes statements from Best. “At the middle school level we must develop career interest and get [students] on the right track with math classes,” said Carter.
A study by Georgetown projects 2.4 million job openings in STEM through 2018, where Virginia will lead the nation with 8.2 percent of its jobs being STEM related. By 2018 there are projections that Virginia will need to fill a total of 404,000 STEM jobs. In 2014, 328,490 Virginians were employed in STEM jobs, with an annual mean wage of $50,750. In 2018, 93 percent of these jobs will require postsecondary education and training. The most recent data on employment in STEM occupations is projected to increase 10.1 percent from 2015 to 2025, while non-STEM employment is forecast to only rise 6.5 percent.
Back at the symposium we meet, 14-year-old attendee, Cole Morgan who aims to someday join the STEM workforce. “I am homeschooled because, when I was in public school, I was bored out of my mind. I was thought to be a disruption in the class, but I’m not! I just want to know more,” said Cole. The curiosity that Cole had, is similar to the curiosity that led to Dr. Magnus to fly in space three times. When asked about his interest Cole responded, “I love science and cooking they are huge passions of mine. Cooking and chemistry are exactly the same thing! Cooking and having big meals is a big part of the family. And we have a lot of doctors in our family; cooking and doctors it’s perfect! My father was about to be a doctor until he dropped out and joined the army so he’s very big on science.”
Rich Morgan, Cole's father, who brought Cole and his younger sister Alyssa to the event stated that he and his wife, both college educated “wanted to have a greater influence over their [children’s] educational process.” The system they use for homeschooling has the traditional math and science components, but lacks in technology and engineering, “so that’s why we come to events like this, you hear about drones, but here you get the opportunity to put your hands on them and fly them, you get to experience and apply it,” said Rich Morgan.
The free forum hosted by the Nysmith School for the Gifted and WashingtonExec provided many Northern Virginian students the opportunity to engage in STEM related activities outside of the traditional science and math curriculums taught in school systems. WashingtonExec, a digital magazine with a mission to deliver networking programs believes that it takes a community of teachers, mentors, parents and local leaders to nurture a child’s curiosity in the STEM fields. Virginia stakeholders at the event learned of the challenge to fill STEM jobs in the future. They were also provided information from the over 40 exhibitors from the business, government, academic and non-profit sectors.
Across the United State companies like WashingtonExec have galvanized in response to President Barack Obama’s 2016 Budget, which invest more than $3 billion, in programs across the Federal Government on STEM education. But with all the investments and opportunities to engage in STEM beyond the traditional academic setting, underrepresented minorities (URMs) traditionally females and students of color appear to be missing at disproportional rates from these conversations. So who comes out to the events like the 2016 K-12 STEM Symposium, and who remains unaware of the opportunities in STEM? The symposium attendance was a predominately white crowd, with small representations of minority families.
A 2015 U.S. News/ Raytheon STEM index attribute racial and gender disparities to early bias in STEM ability, discrimination and social expectations. To combat the challenge of filing STEM jobs across the U.S., Change the Equation lies at the intersection of business and education. Their executive board is D.C. based and addresses these challenges with a Vital Signs report for Virginia. Based on comprehensive STEM data, Virginia has made progress, but still has far to go due to an aging STEM workforce, low standards for achievement, and untapped underrepresented minority talent.
The STEM workforce is aging in fact the most recent report found, many engineers and workers in advanced manufacturing were 45 years old or older. As the average age of workers in STEM fields grow, the opportunities for young STEM talent will grow as well. But, do Virginian students have the skill and content knowledge to eventually take over and fill these jobs?
In Virginia, 30 percent of high school graduates took the ACT, and found that they meet college standards in math, but not science. However, there are gender and racial gaps, where some populations of students are not meeting the same level of preparation. By 2050 the demographics of the U.S. will change, where URMs in STEM will represent more than 40 percent of the population and there will be no majority race. Currently, racial minorities, aged 21 and over make well over a quarter of the U.S. population, yet only hold 10 percent of science and engineering jobs. If people of color were fully represented in the STEM workforce the overall number of STEM professionals would increase.
The inequities highlighted in data sets are thought to stem from K-12 inequities in computing and STEM opportunities. A study conducted by Gallup finds that only 49 percent of African Americans and 53 percent of Latinos attend schools with computer science classes. Lack of opportunity, however does not mean that URMs are not academically ready to pursue STEM fields. In fact the Education Trust finds that there are 65,000 Black, Latino and American Indian students in tenth grade that preform in the top 25 percent of all students in math, yet fewer than 4,900 were given the opportunity to take the AP computer science test in 2014.
Back at the STEM Symposium attendees learned that the future of STEM is filled with jobs that have not been created yet. They were told as long as they learn how to solve problems and are passionate about learning the sky will not be the limit, they can do whatever they want.
Speaking on her experiences as a senior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJ) was Kritika Singh, Founder and CEO of Malaria Free World, which is a non-profit awareness and research organization she started after a mentorship experience. Kritika sat on the Opportunities in STEM panel alongside the principal of her high school, Dr. Evan Glazer. “We are very fortunate to have students like Kritika at our school, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology,” said Glazer. But what about Virginian students who do not attend STEM magnet programs?
Glazer stated that TJ offered extension and outreach programs so that TJ could be available to other students. “It’s not about going to TJ; it’s more about getting an interest in STEM, sharing a love of learning with students of all different grade levels, giving back to the community and having a sense of social responsibility,” said Glazer.
Glazer along with the third panelist, Scott Settar, aim to encourage student leadership and innovation through STEM. Settar is the program manager for Fairfax County Public Schools Technology and Engineering Education and STEAM Integration. “Unfortunately, Virginia is graduating 28% less than the national average of STEM students. So we have a supply and demand issue and it’s not a K-12 issue, it’s not a Fairfax county issue, it’s a K-20, K-job issue on how to prepare students and inspire them to engage and pursue jobs and opportunities in STEM and STEAM career fields,” said Settar.
The STEM symposium, as the largest STEM conference in Virginia provided kids, teachers, parents and industry leaders with strategies to challenge the culture of teaching in school from the traditional model to a model that emphasized problem based strategy and guided learning. In explaining STEAM, Settar stated, “We believe that if you combine excellence in STEM education with the creativity and innovation that arts provides you have a whole well rounded student”. Cultivating well-rounded diverse populations of students could be the solution to ensuring that Virginia and other states are able to fill the STEM jobs of the future.
Editor's Note: The original version of this article was updated on May 17, 2016. An earlier statistic stated, "Unfortunately, Virginia is graduating less than 20 percent of its students, which is 20 percent less than the national average." The updated statistic clarifies that "Virginia is graduating 28% less than the national average of STEM students."