Teresa Barber: Support for STEM can give voice to the 'Silent Key'

A new album crossed my Spotify playlist this past week: Frank Turner’s Positive Songs for Negative People. While listening, the song “Silent Key” caught me off guard. Woven into the lyrics is a haunting imagined message from fallen astronaut-teacher Christa McAuliffe to a ham radio operator.

Silent key is a term used to denote a ham radio operator who has passed, with her call sign now silent.

The song brought me back to the thrill of watching space shuttle launches in school, legs folded and little body seated on the floor along with about 20 elementary-aged peers. Having arrived that January morning in 1986 amid a buzz of excitement, we found shock at the end of our viewing as Challenger exploded. We mourned the loss that touched so close to home. McAuliffe, after all, could have been the teacher in my own Florida classroom. We grieved together, eventually finding resolve to honor McAuliffe and the Challenger crew and keep moving forward.

The shuttles were an inspirational lifeline for kids to the promise of exploration, guided by the frameworks of science, and spurred on by the human spirit. We were exposed to what people can do through collaboration and given role models such as McAuliffe.

In 2013, I was honored to tour the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center as a NASA Social participant for the launch of the Mars Atmosphere Volatile Evolution Probe (MAVEN). In the middle of that massive building where space shuttles were “born” through the collaborative efforts of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) workers, I wondered: “Where is our next ‘shuttle’: How do we captivate children so that their mouths gape in awe at what people can build, accomplish, and set out to explore?”

The American culture of innovation that once enveloped us in our shared awe of shuttle launches has recently found new ignition in realizing that our current and future workforce is woefully lacking in STEM proficiency.

We need a STEM proficient workforce in our communities to fill openings as aerospace engineers, nurses, chemical engineering technicians, and computer programmers across myriad industries. This is our challenge, should we wish to promote economic well-being and our ability to create as well as consume.

While we find excellent programs scattered throughout our schools and communities, the broad inspirational reach the space shuttle program brought us is absent. As McAuliffe is imagined to think in Turner’s “Silent Key,” many students grasp a glimpse of interest in a STEM career, but find the world around them not offering the welcome of support and tactical guidance.

For kids without access to STEM via family ties or unable afford the expenses associated with robotics activities or coding camps, perhaps we should collectively hope enough will happen to stumble upon and persevere along paths to STEM careers. Maybe enough will find their way by Googling the right terms.

The latter hope demands a number of blind assumptions.

Instead, I suggest that we, as leaders and career professionals, consider our unique ability to connect with students.
Mentoring offers tremendous impact, and is particularly needed for those underrepresented in STEM careers.

A March 2014 white paper from STEMConnector, Women in STEM: Realizing the Potential notes that although women fill nearly half of U.S. jobs, we comprise only 26 percent of STEM workers. For every 100 female bachelors students, 12 will graduate with a STEM major, and only three will work in a STEM field a decade after graduation.

Today’s STEM workforce is 74 percent white. Exposure and support matters: Girls with a STEM professional in their family are two-thirds more likely to express interest in pursuing a STEM career, and about 75 percent of female students interested in STEM careers who also have mentors report that they feel they will be successful pursuing their career in STEM.

Mentoring can serve as a lifeline to STEM careers: Nearly 60 percent of educators report that their students struggle with motivation, support, or confidence in planning for college.

I’m joining  the Florida steering committee for Million Women Mentors in Tampa this week as we launch an effort to increase STEM mentoring in our state for girls.

We must connect kids to STEM careers, and we know mentoring works.

I challenge the leaders of Florida’s businesses, chambers of commerce, civic groups, and economic and workforce development teams interested in promoting a prosperous future for your communities: Encourage mentoring in your community. Your leadership is needed. Don’t be a silent key. Connect students to the role models they need.

If they can’t see it, how do they know that they can be it?

Teresa Barber is a consultant with Tallahassee-based Thinkspot Inc. and coordinator for STEMflorida Inc. She  specializes in strategic planning, structural economic development, and STEM systems. She can be reached at [email protected]. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

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