It’s never too early to get students thinking about their futures. Students’ decisions to pursue STEM careers, such as advanced manufacturing, are directly influenced by experiences at the elementary and middle-school levels, yet often efforts to engage students are directed at the high school level. Many such activities are designed to recruit students to enroll in advanced course offerings, to engage in summer experiences, and to take part in informal learning environments, after-school clubs, or other experiences meant to get them interested in advanced manufacturing careers. These efforts, unfortunately, may be too little, too late.
A wide body of research has shown that young students’, and particularly girls’ beliefs of STEM and advanced manufacturing are influenced very early in life. Before they’ve left elementary school, many girls have already internalized negative stereotypical gender beliefs and low efficacy about their STEM ability. These beliefs reduce girls’ interests and lower their confidence in their ability to complete STEM-related tasks, such as working with technology. Unfortunately, because young girls also spend less time interacting with technology and science-related games and toys, students will have few opportunities to counter these negative cultural messages.
Fortunately, students’ beliefs of themselves as it relates to science or math fluctuates with time. Providing young students with multiple experiences in- and out-of-school can positively shape their future and spark interest in STEM and advanced manufacturing careers. In one study, middle school students who participated in science or math activities outside of school as early as 5th grade tended to have a greater interest and identification with STEM in high school. Engage students and recruit them to the right pathways earlier, and they should be more likely to engage, persist and succeed. Try adapting your current recruitment activities for older students so they are age-appropriate for younger girls. Don’t reinvent the wheel.