Students get first-hand look at STEM career options


Published: July 10, 2009

The Daily Press

Students had to return to classrooms in mid-summer, but fortunately for them, one physics project required riding roller coasters at Busch Gardens.

It was part of a camp designed to introduce a group of local high schoolers to career possibilities in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math. Career coaches from Thomas Nelson Community College’s office of outreach and recruitment, who work with students in their schools, sponsored the event this week.

Time for New Career Choices: Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) 101 included hands-on activities, presentations by professionals and field trips.

The STEM fields are receiving a lot of attention as areas where workers will be needed in the future. Both candidates for governor — Democrat Creigh Deeds and Republican Bob McDonnell — have made training workers for those jobs a priority and the Virginia Business Higher Education Council’s recently launched Grow by Degrees initiative placed training workers in STEM fields among its seven areas of emphasis.

The subjects were a natural choice for a career-focused camp, said DeBorah Littlejohn, who works part-time at TNCC as one of the career coaches. Younger students may want to be a brain surgeon or an astronaut, so showing them more realistic alternatives where workers are needed locally is important.

“When we look at a focus for our camps, that’s exactly what we do — we look at what’s going to be needed and what is the demand,” said Littlejohn, who is assigned to Heritage High School and An Achievable Dream High School. “We look at our business and industry. We look at our business partners.

“We want to make sure that in helping them make a decision to choose a career, that it’s going to be something that they can give back into their own community.”

The group of about 35 students who signed up because they are interested in STEM topics included Kyle Cooke, a rising freshman at Heritage High.

“I like building things,” Cooke said. “I’m very creative and I like taking things apart and figuring out what’s wrong with them, making them better and learning how they work.”

Jonathon Marioneaux, a senior at Warhill High School, joked that it’s nice to be looking at a growing field where a worker shortage would guarantee a job.

“I hope in the future that there will be not a worker shortage, that there will be enough people to fill the gaps,” Marioneaux said. “I’m looking into the biochemistry field and everything I hear out here is very, very interesting. It might be really cool to minor in material fabrication.”

Mia Knowles, a sophomore at Phoebus High School, found her interest in engineering and technology further piqued by the technical engineering sector. Although she is aiming for a four-year college, Knowles said community colleges or career and technical training could benefit students who don’t think they have the money or grades to go to college.

“There’s a lot of people who just don’t have that hope,” Knowles said. “I think this program just brings hope to those of us who can pass it on, even if we’re not interested.”

Although career coaches distribute information on the career pathways at schools, the STEM camp experience allows students to hear from professionals actually working in the field and to ask questions.

“One of our main purposes is to help (students) make a connection between what they were doing in high school and what they needed to do for their future,” Littlejohn said. “A lot of times we can tell them how important it is, but until they actually experience it and get a real life feel for it, then they may not make a connection.”

What is STEM?
STEM is an acronym used to collectively describe the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.



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