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Using STEM Education to Fight Social Inequality
Caroline King might be new to the CEO position at Washington STEM, but she’s been living its mission of advancing quality education in STEM fields – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics – for decades.
“I taught my first year out of college in Ecuador in a social justice experiment of a school. Half the students were from very wealthy socioeconomic backgrounds and the other half were from impoverished backgrounds and attended on full scholarships” King says. “The theory was that a great education, in this case focused on technology, would help bridge the divide between these two populations and ensure they were on a shared path to opportunity.”
King considered continuing to teach after her year abroad, but her aspiration sent her in a different direction. Reasoning that a “great education system wouldn’t just impact 500 kids, but millions of kids,” King’s dreaming at-scale inspired her to go into policy work.
It wasn’t until she began working at Partnership for Learning in Washington state that King encountered major employers who shared her vision for the future. Because Washington’s most prevalent industries are all based in the sciences (aerospace, agriculture, clean energy, etc.), cultivating interest and ability among students is crucial for filling the talent pipeline.
Over the next five years, experts estimate there will be 740,000 job openings in Washington state, with the majority of positions being filled by workers with a postsecondary degree, training, or credential. The need to fill these jobs is where education advocates and major businesses found common ground.
Driven by the need to “recruit diverse and world class talent, and…retain that talent,” the businesses King worked with were willing to put considerable effort and resources toward education. Together, King and her collaborators founded Washington STEM: an organization that would unite educators, policymakers and businesses in their efforts to provide quality STEM education for all. The “for all” part of that mission is literal for King.
“I’ve come to learn and believe that everyone has the potential to be interested in and pursue a STEM field if they choose,” says King. “I have two kids of my own and they are so curious and always asking why and wondering how things work and wanting to experiment. That natural curiosity is just there – our job as adults is to provide opportunities for kids to explore that curiosity and show them career pathways that might happen down the road.”
During her seven years as Washington STEM’s Chief Policy and Strategy Officer, King sought out partnerships that would help cultivate scientific curiosity in those poised to benefit most from ensuing opportunities: underprivileged and underrepresented populations.
According to King, “Some kids – especially girls, or kids of color, don’t see themselves reflected in images of professionals working in STEM. Therefore, they think it’s not possible.” Washington STEM is tackling this discrepancy between reality and possibility by working with partners to open the doors of opportunity and make diverse STEM professionals more visible.
“TechBridge is a nonprofit working in the Highline School District to involve girls in STEM through afterschool programs, and Washington MESA has been working for two decades to involve underserved students in STEM,” King notes. “We’re also working with a group of women leaders to create avenues to highlight women already working in STEM fields and the amazing work they’re doing – the problems they are solving, the projects they are creating.”
This approach also addresses what King, in her decades of experience, views as the biggest challenge: “There is still a perception that out in the world STEM is elitist and not accessible and possible for everyone. The truth is that STEM skillsets are needed in almost every line of work in today’s economy.” She gives several examples: “If you’re a machine operator you need to know how to program the machine. If you’re an apple farmer technology can help you figure out the ideal conditions for apple growing.”
King believes that breaking down the barrier to STEM fields is a critical part of helping all the kids in Washington realize their potential. If you agree and are interested in helping, consider:
- Spreading the word about the importance of STEM education
- Letting your representatives in the state legislature know that you support investment in STEM education
- Joining a regional STEM network as a volunteer or making a donation
CenturyLink is a global communications hosting, cloud and IT services company committed to strengthening and improving the communities it serves. CenturyLink focuses its philanthropic and volunteer efforts on K-12 education programs that support technology-focused initiatives. Learn more about CenturyLink.