You can’t be what you can’t see

According to research, if a child isn’t exposed to STEM-related fields by the age of 10, they’re unlikely to develop a strong interest, let alone pursue a career in them by the time they head to high school, which is where most students make the first big post-secondary decision of their life. With the job market exponentially growing in more tech-based fields, it’s crucial for students to learn the kind of 21st-century skills needed to effectively navigate and pursue these rapidly evolving careers. That is why early career exposure is essential for young students, even more so for students of color; to be encouraged, supported, and introduced to the range of possibilities ahead of them and better prepare them for their futures and life beyond school. 

TAF achieves this through career-connected learning, a pedagogical approach of the STEM Integration and College & Career Readiness pillars of the STEMbyTAF academic model. We connect students with industry professionals through various workshops, corporate-sponsored events, field trips, and mentorships, providing students with multiple opportunities to explore the professional world both in and outside of the classroom while helping them develop the necessary tools & skill sets to pursue their interests beyond high school. For students at our TAF Academies (TAF@Saghalie and Washington Middle School), this means participating in innovation challenges and hackathons, STEM Expos, college & career fairs, resume building workshops, mock interviews, TSP-led events, and most recently: Industry Week.

“Industry Week is a time for students to interact with a variety of industry professionals and hear about their life experiences and career fields,” explains Victoria Thompson, the STEM Integration Transformation Coach at TAF@Saghalie. We had eight different industry professionals come in [to TAF@Saghalie] from many different areas of work – from Air Force pilots to museum specialists, to professors, to engineers, to educators, to authors – it was such a nice spread of folks which really goes to demonstrate exactly how applicable STEM is across disciplines.”

Professionals from various companies volunteered to share their career experiences and expertise with students at TAF@Saghalie and TAF@Washington Middle School.

Over at TAF@Washington Middle School, more than 30 professionals from STEM-related fields came in (virtually) to share their career experiences with the students and kick-off the preparation for their first year of STEM Expo, TAF’s annual school-wide celebration of student learning which showcases individual and group projects that seek to address real-world issues with viable STEM-focused solutions. Professionals facilitated problem ideation with small groups to help students identify a community problem they would like to explore and solve in their STEM Expo projects. Students then had the opportunity to share their ideas, ask questions, and get a real-world understanding from the professionals of how one could solve that problem. Given that teaching and learning are happening remotely, this is a wonderful opportunity to bring in folks from the community to show students what problem-solving looks like in the real world,”  shares Maribel Valdez Gonzalez, STEM Integration Transformation Coach at TAF@Washington Middle School.

An overview of the STEM Expo process

To help students narrow down their interests, the professionals demonstrated how to make a “fishbone diagram” or Ishikawa diagram, a commonly used STEM tool that breaks down problems by cause-and-effect down to the root cause. Since students will be designing a prototype as part of their STEM Expo project, this diagram helps track the variations, defects, and failures that lead to the root cause of their community problem so they can better understand how to create an solution for it.

It’s always nice when students get to hear from professionals in their field about how they use critical thinking and problem-solving in their roles, but it’s even better when they can tie it back to the great projects that our students will be working on!” says Victoria. “It’s that tangible, “takeaway” element of Industry Week that is sometimes missing from other schools – it’s not like folks are just coming in, speaking, leaving, and then students go about their days. They’re actually using this information and applying it to what they’re doing in their projects and classes.”

Students had a chance to explore various community problem interests including understanding the impacts of climate change, racial injustices, COVID-19, providing shelter to those who are unhoused, public transportation, among others. They also got to hear from some particularly interesting and impactful individuals from the community that left a strong impression on everyone. 

“One of my favorite moments was with a member from Microsoft, Joe Brazier. He spoke about his prior career as a special education teacher and how this helps him drive inclusive solutions with his team,” shared Victoria. “He spoke to a special education class and you could just tell they were having an excellent time. It helped connect STEM to inclusivity for them and also gave them ideas for their projects. He even brought out his Xbox Kinect at one point!”

“Luis Peña, a software engineer with Dave, Inc. spoke to students about how his company helps people avoid predatory bank overdraft fees with their app. He explained what the problem is: banks profit from poor people. He shared that 25% of Americans incurred an overdraft fee last year. And of that 25%, 10% received at least eight overdraft fees in that year. Banks made 33 billion dollars. Sometimes people have to make a hard choice: go without food or get charged an overdraft fee,” shared Maribel. “It was an incredible learning experience that is relevant to our lives and showcased how it only takes one person to solve problems in original ways.”

“It’s that tangible, “takeaway” element of Industry Week that is sometimes missing from other schools – it’s not like folks are just coming in, speaking, leaving, and then students go about their days. They’re actually using this information and applying it to what they’re doing in their projects and classes.”

Victoria Thompson
TAF@Saghalie STEM Integration Transformation Coach, Technology Access Foundation

From establishing meaningful connections with professionals across fields to helping students imagine the possibilities ahead, Industry Week proved to be a valuable experience for both TAF Academies and will likely repeat in the upcoming years. “It [Industry Week] creates authentic learning experiences. Students are not only learning skills that they will utilize in their future careers, but are also exposed to contemporary, innovative leaders in the fields of technology, healthcare, community, social services, business, visual and performing arts, and communications” shares Maribel. 

At TAF, we believe that every student is capable of achieving their unique career goals and we are committed to supporting their growth as future leaders and professionals, regardless if it is STEM-related or not. Through our career-connected learning approach, we continually provide students with opportunities to see what they can be and imagine what’s possible for themselves.

Learn more about career-connected learning at our TAF Academies or previous STEM Expos