06/24/2013 02:56 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

3 Ways to Support & Encourage STEM in Your School

The pathways from high school to a college degree/certificate program to a career aren't always clear. Students can be perplexed when thinking about how to connect their current learning activities to future life goals. We encourage students to dream big about their futures but sometimes fall short of showing them the necessary steps to make those dreams reality.

Let's use engineering as an example. The journey--from discovering an interest in engineering, to studying the subject in college, to pursuing a career in the field--is complicated because of the wide variety of options available at each step. Consider the many types of engineers (from computer to marine and biomedical) as well as other fields that apply engineering skills (architecture, for example). Your student saying she's interested in engineering creates the opportunity to discuss the range of educational preparation and careers available.

So, how can you help your students connect what they're learning now to their future goals, particularly if they're interested in STEM fields?

1) Explore high-quality academic/career pathways. More states are creating options for students to link their academic work in high school with on-the-job experiences. A pathway program uses a series of aligned education and training experiences to help students transition through education levels and into a career. Illinois Pathways, for example, provides s advanced courses and work-based learning experiences to enable students to explore STEM fields.

Taking advantage of these opportunities won't force each child to follow a particular career track, nor should it focus her academic studies exclusively on career preparation. In fact, a pathway program should broaden each student's perspective by introducing her to a wide variety of options to pursue her interests. For example, if a child likes technology, she can explore software design, robotics, systems analysis, and user support. She'll learn that STEM includes all types of post-secondary preparation and career settings.

Or what if you're not sure about a subject? Kelly Whitaker Weiler, senior research engineer at Alcoa got her bachelor's in chemistry even though she disliked it in high school. She stepped away from chemistry in college only to realize she actually missed it. She tried various branches of chemistry until she eventually found the one that clicked and was the reason she loved the field in the first place. Bottom line: exploring your options and experimenting with a variety of academic and career pathways allows you to find what suits you best.

2) Make post-secondary opportunities a priority in high school. Giving students a head-start towards earning a college degree or certificate can mean significant academic and financial benefits for them. Advanced Placement allows students to take college-level courses in high school with the option to take a fee-based exam to earn college credit. Other initiatives, such as dual enrollment, enable high-school students to take classes on a college campus. These programs are mutually beneficial for students and schools. The student gets a glimpse into her career years before she normally would have an opportunity to do so, and the school benefits by improved engagement and better outcomes.

Many models exist for high school students to earn college credit, whether in the school building or on a college campus. Irondale High School in New Brighton, Minnesota, has received national attention for its Early College program. Through a partnership with Anoka-Ramsey Community College, students may take college-level courses in the high school and graduate with both a high school diploma and an associate's degree. Students experience the academic rigor of college in the supportive environment of high school--all while earning an associate's degree tuition-free. Students who go on to a four-year college will start significantly ahead of most of their peers.

3) Give your student structure. Internships, apprenticeships, and mentoring programs provide great benefits for students: work experience, connections in their field of interest, and a sense of what their future career might look like. In addition to the work experience, these programs expand a student's support network beyond family, school, and peers to include other caring adults. We tell students about networking, but fail to provide opportunities for students to actually connect with working professionals.

High Tech High Consortium in San Diego, California, serves 3,500 students and leverages technology to achieve academic success. High Tech High's approach is to provide tactical, real life experiences, and all students are required to complete internships before graduation. Specifically, juniors complete a three-week academic internship in a local business or agency. As part of the experience, each student creates a resume, completes personality and career interest assessments, and develops a list of career interests. High Tech High's model has achieved extraordinary success with a diverse student population: More than 80 percent of its students enroll in college within the first year after high school.

New research shows that mentor programs are particularly helpful for encouraging female high school seniors to enroll in college. Mentors can help students articulate interests and understand future education and career options early on to boost their readiness for college and career down the road. Have ongoing conversations about her college aspirations, goals necessary to get there, and strategies for overcoming obstacles. Those discussions, plus experiences visiting college campuses and exploring different career options, will provide her tools for success.

Most importantly, students need a roadmap that outlines how their schoolwork will help them achieve their goals. This sense of purpose will improve students' level of engagement in school, which, in turn, will increase the likelihood of them completing higher levels of education and will enhance their future prospects.