A Three-Pillar Approach to Preparing Tomorrow's STEM Professionals: Developing Knowledge, Abilities, and Ways of Working

A Three-Pillar Approach to Preparing Tomorrow's STEM Professionals: Developing Knowledge, Abilities, and Ways of Working

DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-6341-9.ch004


STEM professionals need specific knowledge, abilities, and general ways of working to be successful. In this chapter, the authors identify a three-pillar approach for preparing future STEM workers including 1) knowledge of STEM careers and professionals, 2) abilities to work in the STEM fields, and 3) ways of working as STEM professionals. Additionally, the individual components and activities of Project Engage that address each pillar are detailed. Finally, this chapter also presents the results and implications discovered through survey research designed to ascertain the participants' opinions of the project activities and the impact of the activities on retention in STEM fields and on participants' desires to continue into STEM careers. The survey results uncover a trend of more positive responses of minority students towards project activities designed to prepare future STEM professionals. This trend calls for future, more in-depth examinations on the project activities and similar ones as a means to increase the number of underrepresented minorities in STEM professions.
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Preparing Tomorrow’S Stem Professionals: A Three Pillar Approach

The three-pillar approach to preparing STEM professionals for working in tomorrow’s STEM workforce incorporates: 1) knowledge of STEM careers and professionals; 2) abilities to work in the STEM fields; and 3) ways of working as STEM professionals (see Figure 1). Typically, in the rural landscape, young adults go directly into the workforce rather than seeking postsecondary education as illustrated by data from the nine county school systems within the Project Engage service area. On average 17% of high school graduates from this region attend college, with some county school systems having as low as 4% of their graduates attending college. Of those who attend college and earn an undergraduate STEM degree, only a small percentage return to their hometown areas due to lack of employment opportunities. According to Harmon and Wilborn (2016), “For the vast majority of students, pursuing academic subjects like mathematics as preparation for (STEM) occupations aligns with the need or desire to leave home for a more prosperous opportunity in an urban place” (p.26). Ultimately, this trend leaves few STEM role models for high school students to want to emulate. Together, the lack of STEM role models and exposure to STEM careers can partially explain rural students’ lack of interest in STEM disciplines and motivation to pursue a STEM career. Without these key aspects early in a student’s educational preparation, aspirations to become a STEM professional never develop. To improve STEM majors’ retention rate and enhance motivation to pursue STEM careers after graduation, Project Engage adopted a three-pillar approach to prepare STEM majors to become tomorrow’s STEM professionals (see Figure 1). Equipping STEM majors, especially those from rural areas who may lack significant exposure to STEM, with the knowledge of STEM careers, abilities to work as part of a team, as well as the techniques used by STEM professionals ensures these students are prepared to face the challenges of a STEM major and ultimately become a valued member of the STEM workforce.

Figure 1.

Three pillar approach for preparing tomorrow’s STEM professionals


Working in STEM fields involves applying STEM content knowledge to solve real world problems, to discover, and to innovate. STEM professionals have unique skill sets and ways of working to get jobs accomplished. Hossain and Robinson (2012) postulated, “Success in STEM requires both technical and non-technical skills and dispositions. Curiosity, the ability to think logically and creatively in problem-solving, communication skills and the ability to work in teams are all required to succeed in STEM careers” (p. 450). The three-pillar approach in Figure 1 was adopted to allow STEM students enrolled in Project Engage to gain insights about STEM careers and professionals and their ways of working, and to acquire skills to work in STEM fields. This three-pillar approach was embedded in four types of Project Engage activities: STEM field trips, STEM Challenges and Invention Conventions, and invited speakers.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Mercedes-Benz U.S. International Incorporated: Located in Tuscaloosa, AL producing Mercedes-Benz vehicles: GLE SUV, GLS SUV, the C-Class and the GLE Coupe.

Marshall Space Flight Center: A NASA facility responsible for the design and production of engines, instruments, payloads, and other products for spaceflight.

U.S. Space and Rocket Center: A museum which showcases artifacts from the U.S. space program, simulation equipment, and hands-on labs for students.

STEM Self-Efficacy: A student’s belief in his/her knowledge and skills related to success in science, technology, engineering, and/or mathematics.

Redstone Arsenal: A military installation that supports space exploration and U.S. missile defense.

Invention Convention: Supports student creativity and problem-solving. Students design, build and test inventions providing a real-world STEM experience.

Alabama Nature Center: Provides nature-based field trip opportunities where students can get hands-on experience in biological, chemical, and environmental sciences.

Career Exploration: Opportunities to examine STEM careers in depth including educational requirements, knowledge and skills needed, internships, etc.

STEM Speakers: People who have distinguished themselves in an area of science, technology, engineering, and/or mathematics.

Team Building: Activities which foster cooperation and communication among individuals who work as a team.

Hudson Alpha Institute for Biotechnology: A collaborative biotechnology facility with a focus on genomic discoveries and promoting genomic literacy among the public.

Competitive STEM Events: Competitions which engage students in hands-on activities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Professional Exploration Trips: Trips to STEM industry sites where students are allowed to interact with STEM professionals in their work environment.

STEM Challenge: A competitive event which involves students using skills in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

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