For nearly everybody, earning a bachelor’s degree in a STEM field is hard. So what should STEM in the K-12 schools look like?

For almost everybody, earning a bachelor’s degree in engineering is hard.  So is earning a bachelor’s degree in physics or computer science or chemistry or biology or math or statistics.  Just to be clear:  Students can become really good professional engineers, scientists and mathematicians even if they find undergraduate work in these fields challenging.

Most students who succeed in persisting through the struggles of courses in calculus, physics, programming and engineering fundamentals to earn a bachelor’s degree in a STEM field have two things in common.

First, they come to college well-prepared for their college STEM majors.  They’ve taken a first calculus course like the Advanced Placement Calculus AB course.  They’ve taken a well-taught high school physics course so they can get some traction in their college physics classes.  They’ve had a strong chemistry course as well.  Somehow these students were guided by their parents, counselors or teachers into taking the math and science courses in middle and high school that got them to the point where they had the best possible chance to succeed in their college STEM programs.

Second, they’ve arrived at college excited about becoming engineers or computer scientists or mathematicians or physicists.  Here’s a dirty little secret:  If you are not excited about becoming an engineer or physicist or health professional or computer scientist, you simply aren’t going to stay home on Thursday nights working problems or writing programs while the Interdisciplinary Social Science majors (and many others) are out partying.  And you’re not going to work more problems or debug your program on Saturday afternoon while those same social science majors (and others) are napping to recover from Friday night’s activities so they can repeat the same activities on Saturday night.

Building up the passion for engineering or science or mathematics necessary to persist to a bachelor’s degree in one of those fields doesn’t happen overnight, at least for most students.  It sometimes takes years of getting excited over electric circuits in fifth grade, or learning about weather in middle school, or taking engineering design classes in high school.  That’s one of the reasons why Lainie Clowers’s motor-building activities are so important at Dream Lake Elementary School in Apopka and why launching rockets and running robotics competitions on a Super STEM Saturday at Apopka High School is worth the enormous effort by teachers and administrators necessary to make it happen.

But it’s worth remembering that the fun stuff by itself is not enough to give a student a fighting chance of completing a bachelor’s degree in engineering, physics, biology or computer science.  Without the high school courses in calculus, chemistry and physics needed to prepare for college STEM majors, all of the effort invested in STEM festivals is wasted.

I was prompted to think about all of this today by a tweet from STEM podcaster Chris Woods, who tweeted, “…and who says #STEM has to be all difficult…”  Of course, Chris is right – if it’s ALL difficult and joyless then no one will want to do it.  But for nearly everyone there are no shortcuts to becoming a scientist or engineer and there are going to be some unpleasant times along the way.  Perhaps it is worth looking at it this way, though:  A student had better have a large reservoir of excitement and passion to clear the obstacles she or he will face in high school and college courses in math, science and engineering.

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