Future of Work

Students Want STEM Careers, But Think Schools Are Doing a ‘Poor Job’ Preparing Them

By Lauraine Langreo — July 20, 2023 3 min read
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A majority of students are interested in careers in science, technology, engineering, or math, but students, parents, and teachers say schools are not doing a good job preparing students to pursue careers in those fields, concludes a new survey from the Walton Family Foundation.

Sixty-two percent of students, ages 12-18, said they would consider a future career in at least one of the following fields: biotechnology (26 percent), artificial intelligence (25 percent), financial technology (22 percent), quantum computing (16 percent), 5G/6G internet networks (15 percent), or semiconductors (11 percent), according to the nationally representative survey of 1,000 K-12 teachers, 1,002 students ages 12-18, 802 voters, and 906 parents conducted by Impact Research between June 23 and July 6.

Recent technological advances—especially in the field of artificial intelligence—are poised to bring big changes to future jobs. STEM occupations are projected to grow by almost 11 percent by 2031, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. And some experts say those STEM fields listed above are key sectors where the U.S. will need a prepared workforce in order to stay competitive.

Nearly all respondents (91 percent) said preparing students for these STEM jobs is important, including two-thirds who said it’s very important, according to the survey. It mirrors other findings that show an increasing number of Americans think K-12 schools should focus more on preparing students for careers, and especially in STEM fields.

But 61 percent of respondents gave K-12 schools a negative rating for preparing students for the workplace and future careers, according to the Walton Family Foundation survey. (The Walton Family Foundation provides support to Education Week for coverage of race and opportunity and other topics. Education Week retains sole editorial control over that coverage).

Specifically, 33 percent of students said their school is doing a “poor job” of preparing them for a future career in STEM, the survey found.

And nearly all teachers (95 percent) agree it is their job to prepare students for their future careers, yet 37 percent believe they are not preparing them for those jobs.

“I think there’s a few reasons why students (and their teachers) may feel ill-prepared for STEM careers,” said Tess Carlson, a science teacher for San Francisco Unified School District’s Mission Bay Hub, a special STEM program. “There is a real lack of resources in many schools, so it’s not feasible for students to access much of the technology that they would encounter in the STEM field. For example, commonly used biotechnology equipment that scientists use every day (like incubators, PCR machines, reagents, even freezers) may be too expensive for many schools to have and maintain.”

“Teachers themselves may not have industry experience, so they may feel ill-equipped to teach students about these careers,” Carlson added.

Dyane Smokorowski, the digital literacy coordinator for Wichita Public Schools in Kansas and the 2013 Kansas Teacher of the Year, agreed that teachers need more professional learning on teaching STEM concepts, such as critical thinking, problem solving, and “how to fail forward.”

To prepare students for careers and life after graduation, many school districts are expanding their career and technical education programs. Forty-two states have pledged to expand CTE programs and make them more rigorous, according to AdvanceCTE, a nonprofit advocacy group. The federal government is also supporting this work by providing funding for schools to expand work-based learning opportunities.

To better prepare teachers, Carlson and Smokorowski said school districts need to partner with industries or universities, so that teachers can bring in STEM professionals who can inspire students or help understand how the topics they’re learning in class are applied in the real world. These partnerships can also help with teacher professional learning. For example, an aerospace engineering company could provide externships to teachers over the summer to see how the science they teach is at work in the industry.

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