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Forming a STEM Identity: Start Young!

Those who know me well are always surprised to see me in a STEM field as an adult. This is because I was an English major who began my teaching career (and spent most of my career) teaching literature and Language Arts to middle and high school students. I still do, in fact, as I write this. My choice to become an English teacher was implanted as a seed early on in my academic career, and it took one comment for me to "see" myself as an English kid, not a math kid. The story goes something like this:

Up until fifth grade, I had no issues with school whatsoever. I breezed through my assignments and I fancied myself a bit of a Hermione Granger type; I always knew the answer, and I loved school overall. I threw myself into spelling bees, reading, and writing, but it was only in late elementary that I noticed while I was still doing well in math, it was not coming as easily as my other subject areas. I figured I could rectify this problem during our SPECIALS on Friday. This particular year, on Fridays, we were given a fun "elective" option to spend our afternoons. There were options such as Dance Club, Game Club, Art, and MATH CLUB. While most of my friends were stereotypically opting for the dance club, I thought that by joining the Math Club, I might get the reinforcement I needed to really grasp the concepts. I think back on this now and am impressed with my childhood wherewithal. I am not sure that my adult self would think quite so logically. So, I went to my first-- and last--Math Club meeting.

The reason it was my first and last had to do with one comment from the teacher of this "special." In retrospect, I don't think he was being cruel or malicious, but I am reminded how one simple comment by a person in authority can change someone's life or view of themselves. After it was apparent that first day that I was not on the same level as these math-loving peers, the teacher pulled me aside and suggested "perhaps I would enjoy the Dance Club more." This one well-meaning comment solidified for me that I must not be a MATH person. That I must not be "good" at math. While I did fine during middle school., my math hangup really reared its head in high school. By the time I graduated, I had not been able to successfully master Algebra II (although it still shows on my high school transcript), and was instead offered a simpler solution: Business Math.

That one comment came at a time when I was developing what educational theorists like Erik Erikson called a stage of development. I know now as an educator myself that children first learn at home with parents as their first teachers about what they can expect for themselves. Children who grow up in text-rich homes, with parents who are in particular fields, etc. see themselves as readers, learners, and the possibility of becoming what their parents are. For example, if a doctor is in the family, a child can identify him/herself as a doctor. For me, neither parent had a college degree. I did, however, have lots of reading material at least. My mother was an Avon district salesperson; my stepfather did various odd jobs. It was my job to take care of my sister, six years younger. To help pass the long summers, we would play "school" where I was the teacher, and she and her friends, my students. I overheard my mother once say in passing that I would make a great teacher some day. Hearing that reinforcement, and later seeing my abilities to be excellent only in English, no doubt impacted the choice I made for a career. I identified as an English teacher because it came easy to me AND because a parent had suggested it.

The point here of course is that I could have been ANYTHING had I seen myself as anything else. While home is the first school, teachers can help foster a STEM identity early on. Since children as old as seven are still forming an identity, seeing people with whom they can relate, people who look like them, in particular careers can really open up a child's possibilities. This identity continues through most of a child's elementary and middle school year's, so teachers have a vital role in being able to help change the perceptions of what subject areas a child may be "good" at.

One way teachers may do this in relation to STEM is to bring real opportunities into the classroom. I had the pleasure of working with a kindergarten class whose teacher started science fair experiments early in the year as a way to teach the scientific method. These students wore lab coats, kept log books, and reported their findings as though they were real scientists. They felt they were scientists because their teacher believed it too. There is no doubt in my mind that these students will always feel that STEM is something within their bounds, that even if they have to work at some elements, they have the option of choosing a career in STEM because they identified with it in Kindergarten.

Of course this means that to really have an impact, that identity needs to be reinforced. Students need to continue to have access to real world experiences in STEM beyond donning a lab coat. This is particularly true of under-represented populations. There continues to be a shortage of people of color, women, and in particular, women of color in STEM fields even now. In part, this may stem from the fact that there are few role models in STEM careers with whom children can identify. If there is no one at home, and no one in the classroom, where do they turn? By the time they are ready to choose a career, most students pick something that they think they will enjoy, in which they will fit in and be successful. Even if students do chose STEM careers, many do not stick with the programs in college due to lack of role models once again. But this can be rectified in the earlier years. It should not be only college where students are dabbling in their careers. Instead, middle and high school programs must exist that create opportunities for students to "see"themselves in STEM careers.

Beyond role playing and science fairs, teachers can play a vital role by bringing STEM professionals into the classroom who "look" like their students. Parents of students who attend the school can often fill this role, but the community itself often offers individuals who would be willing to visit a class. In today's online world, finding relevant content hosted by people who look like their students can provide that beneficial identity boost as well.

In short, the United States in particular is seeing a leak in the STEM pipeline. The "greying" of the workforce suggests these high-paying jobs can and should be filled by our students. But for this to happen, we have to do a better job helping students of all ages and backgrounds to identify themselves in these areas. Helping children to recognize that it's not what naturally comes easy to them, but rather how they work through when content becomes a struggle will help them to recognize that we are not "born" to be good at certain things, but rather, we can work through struggles to become anything we set our minds to.

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