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The Motivational Power of STEM: This Program Connects Students to Potential Careers

Ruier Fang loves science class, especially the hands-on experiments, such as creating chemical reactions and dissecting parts of an animal brain. “But I didn’t know how that would apply to a career,” said Ruier, a 12th grade student at Thurgood Marshall Academic High School in San Francisco.

Princess Canlas, an 11th grade student at Thurgood Marshall wants to follow the lead of some of her relatives and go into the medical field. But she wasn’t sure how to pursue that goal.

Enter: Mission Bay Hub, the San Francisco school district’s new program designed for students like Ruier and Princess, who are interested in learning more about careers in the health and life sciences fields. Now, both students—who participated in the program in its inaugural year in 2023-24—say they have a better understanding of what they want to do after high school and are more motivated to pursue those goals.

Mission Bay Hub is a one-year, specialized STEM program for 11th and 12th graders and counts toward a science, English, and elective credit. Students, who come for half the day from their high schools, learn more about science disciplines such as biochemistry and neuroscience.

More districts are renewing efforts across the country to provide high school students with the opportunities they need to access and excel in STEM fields. The Biden administration launched a STEM initiative in late 2022 that includes more than $1.2 billion in investments from the federal government, industry leaders, and nonprofit organizations.

Jobs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields pay substantially more than those in other fields and are growing at a faster rate than all other occupations, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. And recent technological advances—especially in the field of artificial intelligence—mean more organizations are in search of STEM-savvy employees.

“One thing we know is that when students think of STEM, they think of doctor, they think of generic scientists, and they think of, maybe, computer programmer,” said Maud Abeel, a director for Jobs for the Future, a national nonprofit that develops programs and public policies on boosting students’ college and career readiness. “But there’s a huge variety of STEM occupations out there that allow you to move between different sectors in the economy.”

Beyond its economic impact, STEM learning also nurtures skills—such as creativity, persistence, and problem solving—that are transferable to almost any field students choose to pursue after graduation, experts say.

That’s why it’s important to show students, especially those in high school, the relevance of STEM learning.

How to connect STEM learning to real-world applications

With Mission Bay Hub, the San Francisco district is making STEM learning relevant by giving students exposure and access to professional scientists and their work.

The program is fortuitously located in a region where many health and life sciences research organizations and companies are based. For now, students attend the program on the University of California, San Francisco campus. (The district expects its newest school building, which is mostly an elementary school with the top floor dedicated to the Mission Bay Hub, to be ready by fall 2025.)

The district’s location in a region with lots of STEM-related companies and organizations makes it much easier for it to provide work-based learning experiences for the students who attend the program, said Erik Rice, the director of Mission Bay Hub. The program partners with UCSF to provide students with work-based learning experiences with scientists working in different medical fields.

For instance, Ruier’s work-based learning experience was with clinical researchers who were seeing patients with prostate or bladder cancer. She shadowed doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and pathologists, and got to ask them questions about what they do and how they do it.

“Mission Bay made it a lot easier for me to get connected with these kinds of people,” Ruier said. “It also helped me decide, ‘oh, I want to work in health care.’”

Tess Carlson, the founding science teacher of the program, said giving kids these opportunities has been “really powerful.” Carlson co-teaches the class with an English teacher, Anita Feingold-Shaw.

Carlson’s students opted into this program, so they have some interest in science. But she said the majority of them weren’t sure they wanted to go into science or didn’t know exactly what they wanted to study.

“Having these concrete experiences and meeting actual people, instead of having scientists be this abstract concept—that’s been really powerful for them to envision themselves in the field, and then start making plans about how they’re going to get themselves into the field,” Carlson said.

That’s how it was for Ruier. She was interested in health care careers, but didn’t know which one she wanted to pursue.

“This [program] was perfect for me, really,” Ruier said. “I got to meet a lot of people, ask a lot of questions, and now I think I’m leaning toward pharmacy.”

Research shows that connecting what students are learning with their real-world experiences helps motivate them.

“The more that you get in the upper grade levels, the more real it needs to be,” said Todd Kelley, a professor of technology leadership and innovation at Purdue University. “Students get to a place where they think, ‘I’m just doing this for a test. I’m just doing this because the teacher gave me this assignment.’”

What’s important is to show students “real science” and that means they have to go out in the world and collect data and do their own research, he said.

Ruier said the Mission Bay Hub program “makes the learning experience more interesting.” She’s not just “stuck in a classroom, reading, writing.” Instead, she sees “how your learning will be applied in the real world.”

“I think that’s sometimes missing from a lot of my classes,” she added.

It’s all about providing supports for success

Not every student has access to these opportunities.

There’s a misconception that students aren’t interested in or motivated to go into STEM careers, said Margaret Eisenhart, a professor emerita of educational foundations, policy, and practice at the University of Colorado Boulder. But she argues that it’s not just a matter of motivating students. Rather, it’s all about supporting students to go through the steps to get there.

“Most students that I encounter know that STEM is a good area to go into,” Eisenhart said. “I think what happens along the way is that they’re discouraged in a number of ways.”

For instance, students might not be able to take advanced STEM classes if they don’t have the right grades, or students might not know about all the different classes they can take. Or those STEM subjects might not be available at their school, or they fear their peers would think badly of them for taking those courses, she said.

Beyond those challenges, not every district has the resources to provide these opportunities. To make a program like Mission Bay Hub work requires time, money, and access to professionals working in those fields, according to researchers and educators.

Plus, educators often don’t have the necessary industry experience or the training to teach various STEM concepts or career paths. Counselors don’t have the bandwidth to make sure every student is aware of STEM opportunities. And sometimes, because of graduation requirements, students don’t always have time in their schedules for other classes, according to researchers.

Mission Bay Hub was made possible in part because there were already plans to build a new school in the area, and the district wanted to know if there were other ways it could use the space, so funding wasn’t a big challenge, Rice said.

Rice saw what other schools had done with specialized programs and thought the district should take advantage of the Mission Bay area’s plethora of medical and biotech companies.

With the program, now “it’s very easy for our students to leave our campus and go be part of the ‘real, real’ context,” Rice said. “Equally important is how easy it becomes for the adults that are steps away to come into our space.”

Industry partners are a necessary part of the equation, according to Rice and Carlson, especially because schools typically don’t have the funding to access much of the technology students would encounter in STEM fields. Industry partners can provide access to those tools, as well as the professionals who use them. This school year, along with UCSF, Mission Bay Hub partnered with health care company Kaiser Permanente and the Golden State Warriors, the NBA team.

But finding partners and building those relationships are challenges facing Mission Bay Hub.

And Eisenhart points out that specialized programs are “great, but they’re scattershot.” A quality STEM education should be “built into the school system,” but typically students have these opportunities one year but not the next, or only in limited courses.

Princess, the 11th grade student who’s participating in the Mission Bay Hub program, said she’s worried about next school year because she won’t have the program, which sparked her interest in the field of radiology.

“I feel like there’s just a gap there,” she said. “But I’m planning on taking more medical-related classes, [Advanced Placement] classes, maybe internships, too.”

Her classmate Ruier graduates in June and then she’s off to the University of California Berkeley to study chemical biology—a step that puts her well on the way to pharmacy school.

“This program was really good at exposing me to all these different kinds of careers,” Ruier said. “That motivated me [because I saw] these people are doing it. This is an option. I can do it. This is also an opportunity to build a network of people that you may be working with or for in the future.”

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