Purpose: Students will learn about the vast variety of STEM-related careers, consider what careers might align with their interests and skills, and identify potential paths to those careers. After completing the activity, students will see that there are countless ways to work in a STEM field.

Procedural overview: Students will read the online Science News article “How our SN 10 scientists have responded to tumultuous times” for homework to prepare for this activity.

During the first class period, briefly discuss the article before asking students to explore their own interests and skills using the student worksheet.  Students should then use the website Science Buddies or other online resources to identify STEM careers that interest them. By following the instructions on the worksheet, students will create a map or flowchart to model a possible career path for themselves.

During the second class period, students will use the Science News archive to find a STEM professional with a career like one that students have chosen for themselves. Students will research how that person got to where they are now and answer related questions. For extra credit or as a continuation of the activity, students can present their STEM professional’s career path via a poster or other visual medium.

Approximate class time: 2 class periods

Supplies:

Paper

Pencils

Access to the internet

Exploring STEM career paths student worksheet

Want to make it a virtual lesson?

This activity can be done virtually using interactive meeting software for the discussion component. Post the student worksheet to your virtual learning platform. Students can submit completed assignments electronically.

Background on choosing a STEM career

There are many ways to have a career in STEM. Research scientists, engineers and mathematicians have obvious connections to STEM fields. But park rangers, electricians, patent lawyers, architects, forensic investigators and many others need training in one or more STEM fields.

So why do people choose careers in STEM? Often, people want to study a particular problem or better understand how something in the world works. They study a field that seems most related to their interests. For instance, a student interested in climate change may pursue ecology to study how changing climate affects animals, plants and ecosystems. Another student with the same interest might pursue engineering to build satellites that monitor climate effects on farmland. A third student might pursue computer science to learn how to model oceans and climate change.

There are several broad fields within STEM; among them are engineering, health, life sciences, physical sciences, math and computer science. All the broad fields break down into subdisciplines. Many STEM fields require study across disciplines. A biologist, for instance, may study chemistry, physics and math along with biology. A chemical engineer will study chemistry, but also math and physics. Epidemiologists study biology, but also public health and statistics.

Because the worlds of science and technology change so quickly, people who enter STEM fields are always learning something new. This makes STEM careers good choices for people who are curious and like challenges.

Directions for teachers:

The setup

Have the students read the online Science News article “How our SN 10 scientists have responded to tumultuous times” for homework. A version of the article, “SN 10: Times of Change,” appears in the October 9, 2021 issue of Science News.

Class period 1: Charting a path

Begin the class with a discussion of the reading and ask students how they think the scientists featured got to where they are now.

Remind students that STEM professionals were once high school students like them. Some pursued advanced studies in biology, computer science, astronomy and other fields. But you don’t need an advanced degree in the sciences to have a satisfying STEM-related career. Draw on information from “Background on choosing a STEM career” if needed.

Tell students that they are first going to think about their interests and skills using the prompts provided. Do they have well-developed fine motor skills? Do they enjoy coding? Is being outdoors important to them? Are they caring when people or animals are sick? Can they persevere when things are difficult? Identifying their interests and strengths might help students pick and map a career.

After completing the first set of prompts, students will explore different careers using Science Buddies or other online resources and choose a few careers that interest them.

Once they have selected a few career options, they will use the next set of prompts to consider the steps needed to reach one of those careers and outline a map or flowchart from where they are now to that career. If more than one career interests them, they can create multiple paths or show different paths on the same map or flowchart. Encourage students to use arrows and other symbols in their maps or flowcharts.

Note that accessing some career information on Science Buddies requires creating a free account. You can also find additional resources online. Science Buddies lists key requirements for the fields. These requirements range from interest in animals to the ability to communicate to trustworthiness (that trait is required for cryptographers).

This activity is an opportunity for your students to see themselves in new ways and imagine a future they had not previously considered. Remind students that they are just exploring the range of possible STEM career options; they are not committing to a particular career.

Student prompts for “Charting a path”

To chart your path to a STEM career, answer the questions and prompts below by circling sample answers or writing in your own.

1. First, consider your existing interests and skills, and what motivates you.

I like to…                                                            
Help people, Write, Code and game, Draw, Explore new places, Be outdoors, Build models, Play sports, Cook, Sing, Perform, Dance, Listen to music, Write your own:

I’m good at…                                                    
Public speaking, Solving problems, Encouraging others, Noticing details, Thinking big picture, Being creative, Leading a team, Synthesizing information, Active listening, Coordinating others, Creating systems, Working independently, Reading comprehension, Write your own:

I care about…
Climate change, Animals, Sustainability, Conservation, Clean energy, Cybersecurity, Space exploration, Transportation, Mental health, Teaching others, Food supply, Human health and wellness, Equity and inclusion, Write your own:

My favorite high school STEM subjects are…    
Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Computer science, Math, Earth science, Anatomy, Psychology, Health, Technology, Engineering, Write your own:

2. Next, explore Science Buddies or other online resources to identify two or three careers that sound interesting to you. What does a person in that career do? Why does that career sound interesting? How does it fit with your interests and skills? What do the careers you selected have in common? What makes them different?

STEM careers that interest me include…                            
Veterinarian, Pharmacologist, Climate modeler, Robotics engineer, Biomedical researcher, Agronomist, Teacher, Architect, Physical therapist, Science reporter, Patent lawyer, Statistician, Oceanographer, Cartographer, Food scientist, Economist, Write your own:

3. Now, identify the steps that could get you from your current interests and skills to one of the STEM careers you have identified. Consider the importance of academic degrees, training or experience. Use Science Buddies or other online resources to guide you.

High school coursework might include…
Culinary arts, Anatomy, Computer science, Calculus, Statistics, Chemistry, Physics, Biology, Introduction to research, Write your own:

Vocational training programs might include…
Dental hygienist, Medical technologist, Web developer, Assistants in physical or occupational therapy, HVAC mechanic or installer, Massage therapy, Electrician, Write your own:

College majors might be…
Biology, Biochemistry, Physics, Biomedical engineering, Forestry, Nutrition, Computer science, Civil engineering, Genetics, Agronomy, Economics, Write your own:                 

Additional education might be…            
Ph.D. in STEM subject, Masters in STEM, Masters in writing or communication, Business school, Medical school, Associate degree in nursing, Certificate in aerospace engineering, Law degree, Certificate in nutrition, License in teaching, Clarify further or write your own:

Skills I’ll need include…
Computer coding, Data analysis, Strong leadership, Active listening, Critical thinking, Writing, Speaking, Reading comprehension, Social perceptiveness, Complex problem solving, Judgement and decision making, Mathematics, Mechanical aptitude, Fine motor skills, Write your own:

Work experience could include…
Internship with local newspaper, Volunteering at a nature center, Lab experience at local college or university, Student teaching, Internships in consulting or research firms, Database management, Systems administration, Internship at a law firm, Write your own:

4. Finally, you’ll create a path that gets you from where you are now to where you want to be. A sample path from an interest in coding and earth science to a career as a climate modeler is shown. What might a path from your interests and skills to your selected career look like? Draw a map or flowchart of that path. Indicate when you might learn important skills or gain necessary experience along the way. What would a path to a second career look like? Can you think of an alternative route? 

Coding and gaming + Earth science à Computer science courses in high school + Volunteering building a website for a local nature center à College major in Oceanography + Courses in CSS and JavaScript à Ph.D. in Climate Science à Climate modeler

Class period 2: Zooming in

In this segment, students will identify a STEM professional and study their career path. The person can be a scientist, engineer, mathematician or someone who works in a different STEM field.

Students will use Science News SN 10, Science News for Students Cool Jobs or the Science News archive to find a STEM professional with an interesting career. Students can find additional information by searching online. Remind them not to contact the scientists.

Ask the students to answer the questions that follow. A few questions are drawn from “Forging paths to STEM success,” a Science News in High Schools resource.

Student questions and sample answers for “Zooming in”

1. Who is the scientist whose career you find interesting?

Michelle O’Malley

2. What sources did you use to research this scientist?

I used the Science News article “Michelle O’Malley seeks greener chemistry through elusive fungi and her faculty page.

3. What is the scientist’s field, and where do they work?

Michelle O’Malley is a chemical engineer at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

4. What degrees did they earn to pursue their career?

She earned a B.S. in chemical engineering and a B.S. in biomedical engineering, both from Carnegie Mellon University, and a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from the University of Delaware.

5. What do they focus on within their field, and how do they study it?

O’Malley has several research interests. But one thing she studies is how anaerobic fungi break down plant material. To get the fungi, she and her colleagues harvest them from goat and sheep poop and then culture them in the lab.

6. Does the scientist mention a moment of inspiration or challenge in their research/STEM journey?

After studying chemical engineering, O’Malley had to work hard to find someone to teach her how to culture anaerobic organisms. Without learning this skill, her research could not have proceeded.

7. Do they name a mentor or important person who helped them?

People who helped O’Malley include Anne Robinson, her graduate school adviser, and Michael Theodorou, who taught O’Malley how to isolate and grow anaerobic microbes

8. What accomplishments do they mention, and why are they important?

Her lab created a process using anaerobic organisms to convert the lignocellulose found in plants into sugars. Those sugars can then be converted into higher-value chemicals by an organism called Saccharomyces cerevisiae, commonly known as brewer’s yeast.

9. What was surprising to you about your scientist’s work?

I didn’t expect a chemical engineer to work with animals. Her work relies on obtaining microbes from animals.

10. How has your research on this scientist influenced your thinking about a STEM career?

I found it interesting that O’Malley needed to know about several areas of science to do her work. The chance to do research in several scientific disciplines might make it interesting to pursue a STEM career. There would always be something to learn.

Optional presentation

Students will create a poster or other visual presentation to show their scientist’s career path. Students should use the answers to the questions about their scientist as a guide to creating the presentation.

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