Spark an interest: How STEM education leads to quality employment

Ashley Tapio knows what she wants to do when she grows up, and she has a pretty good idea of how her education can help get her there.

That’s more than you can say about most high school students.

Tapio, who is entering her senior year at Sauk Rapids-Rice High School, was nominated by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Dr. John Mather to represent her school at the Congress of Future Science and Technology Leaders in Boston this summer. The event strengthened Tapio’s passion for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

STEM is the focus of the second year of Times Media’s effort called “Spark: Igniting Your Future.” Spark aims to generate interest in educational paths to good paying, STEM-related careers that don’t always require a four-year degree.

“When I was younger, I wanted to be a brain surgeon, because that was like the coolest thing in the world, I thought,” Tapio said. “Everything I’ve been interested in has been in the STEM field.”

STEM may stand for the four broad disciplines of science, technology, engineering and math, but a STEM education refers to an interdisciplinary approach to learning about real-world applications. An understanding of how the four fields work together helps students appreciate just how many STEM-related career paths are available to them straight out of high school or with a two-year degree.

As a regional analyst with the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, Luke Greiner scours data daily to track employment trends in Central Minnesota. Greiner said a STEM education helps workers of all educational backgrounds find good-paying jobs in the region.

“What’s really hard is making students think about STEM and get excited in any way — to actually think what occupations or career paths open up if I decide to take a higher-level math course in high school,” Greiner said.

According to the U. S. Department of Education, only 16 percent of the country’s high school seniors have proven proficiency in mathematics and declare interest in STEM careers.

But Greiner said there are many regional opportunities in STEM-based career fields that offer high median wages while requiring a two-year degree or less. He also noted that modest educational requirements for a job doesn’t mean it’s a low-skill job.

“A lot of businesses are looking for employees willing to advance their skills through on-the-job training,” Greiner said.

Greiner authored a report in June that cited electrical power-line installers and repairers as one of the most in-demand, high-paying careers in Central Minnesota for workers with a high school diploma or less. The highly-skilled position was estimated to employ 730 workers in the region in 2016, with a median annual wage of $81,682. Other occupations with similar outlooks include construction supervisors (660 jobs, median wage of $68,039), loan officers (710, $63,614) and supervisors/managers of mechanics (990, $63,243).

When you consider careers obtainable with some vocational training, even more opportunities present themselves.

Greiner’s report found that there are about 1,180 people in the region employed as electricians, and another 1,720 as machinists. Those careers carry median wages of $54,386 and $47,749, respectively.

“If a high school student isn’t thinking about how the path of education and training can lead to future career opportunities, they should be,” Greiner said.

That brings us back to Tapio.

Nominated as an academic all-star by her 10th grade biology teacher Troy Thompson, Tapio this fall is taking several advance- placement courses, including AP statistics and a college-credit level Spanish class.

“It’s pretty unique to see a student engage the STEM fields as Ashley does,” Thompson said. “There are only a handful of students in all of my sections that I’ve seen that passion come back through and that type of engagement in sciences courses.”

In his third year teaching, Thompson recalls that during his interview process he was asked how he would qualify success as a teacher.

“I told them that I’ll know that I’ve been successful if I have a former student come back and say that after taking my class it helped change their life; they found what they wanted to do and they feel really good about the career they want to pursue,” Thompson said.

Tapio emphasized that Thompson’s teaching style encourages students to think about the practical application of STEM skills.

“He puts passion into teaching,” Tapio said. “There are a lot of teachers that just teach the material and go through the motions, but Mr. Thompson makes us actually want to learn and be interested in what we are learning about.”

Tapio said cultivating an interest in STEM fields was a focal point of discussions while in Boston. She said she relished the opportunity to speak with some of the nation’s top scientists and engineers, adding that the networking connections she made will be strengthened when she returns to the conference in future years through an open invitation to alumni.

Tapio said she currently aspires to be an athletic trainer with a focus on concussion therapy, and she looks forward to soaking up more information on how a STEM education can help her achieve that goal.

“I’ll definitely be taking advantage of that and going back to the conference,” Tapio said. “It’s a great opportunity for me.”