William Roberts’ Teacher Shannon Umberger with her dog. (Photo By Hugh Johnson/The Denver Post)
Numerous organizations are fighting to get more students involved in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, STEM, fields. Stemconncector.org reports that jobs in science and engineering are expected to grow at double the rate of other jobs in the national labor force.
A Denver-based education nonprofit is focusing its efforts on encouraging children to become engineers, scientists and mathematicians at an early age. Leaders with the Public Education & Business Coalition or PEBC said cultivating elementary school students’ interest in math and science is a critical springboard to high-demand careers. The business group held its first Colorado Collaborative STEM Summit last week, which offered tips and advice to educators in an effort to make them more comfortable teaching science and math. The event took place at Denver Museum of Nature and Science.
Why the focus on younger students? Wendy Ward Hoffer, PEBC’s education senior director, said that many elementary school teachers do not specialize in science and math and lack confidence, which often rubs off on students. According to Hoffer, students develop an opinion on science and math long before they reach secondary education.
“By third grade, 50 percent of children have formed their identity already about their orientation to math and science,” Hoffer said. “So research suggests that by eight or nine years old a child is making that choice. So if they haven’t had an opportunity in their earliest primary years to fall in love with math or to feel connected as a scientist, it becomes difficult for them to see themselves in that in their future.”
The result is what Hoffer calls “STEM phobia.” She noted that it’s culturally acceptable to say, “I’m not good at math,” or “I hate science,” but people would never say they aren’t good at reading. Hoffer believes that overcoming that phobia is key to making changes.
Scott Sampson, who has a doctorate degree in zoology and is a dinosaur paleontologist at the museum, was a keynote speaker at the summit. He believes the key to getting students to engage in STEM fields is to make it fun.
“Kids are natural born scientists and they learn science through play,” Sampson said. “Turns out that even toddlers can handle ideas about probability, that preschoolers are making theories about the world, hypotheses and testing them just in what they do and that is through play. So what we’ve done is take away play from kids, we structured their lives to the nth degree.”
Sampson said that part of the problem is that teachers feel they need to be an expert in all the STEM fields, which is impossible. He said if teachers feel comfortable with the subjects so will their students. He believes teachers don’t need to know all the answers to impact students’ lives. They just need to be co-explorers of science with their kids, Sampson said.
Shannon Umberger, a second grade math, science and social studies teacher at Bill Roberts School, is working with her students to create, build and, in some cases, launch simple machines. She said the hands on experience excites the students and gives them confidence.
“Some kids that have had this notion that ‘I’m really not that good at math.’ When they finally get it and they’re like ‘wait a second I can do this,’ that’s the most rewarding part,” Umberger said.
PEBC officials plan to make the STEM summit, which was sponsored by the Gay and Lesbian Fund, an annual event. Lori Pidick, PEBC’s director of development and communications, said the company’s original focus was on improving literacy rates throughout the state. Since Hoffer arrived, the company has shifted its attention to math and science as well. The event was created as a result of the PEBC’s partnership with the museum and 100kin10, an organization formed after President Obama called for 100,000 math and science teachers in early education in 2021.