Press Release: Op-Ed – Jeffrey L. McIntyre: To close the skills and workforce gaps for STEM, inspiration starts at home

“To close the skills and workforce gaps for STEM, inspiration starts at home”

By Jeffrey L. McIntyre, president of Texas Water Utilities for SouthWest Water Company

November 8 is National STEM Day, celebrating science, technology, engineering and math education throughout the U.S. Exposure to these growing fields and the careers that utilize them are more important than ever as we demand more from our natural resources and the infrastructure that harnesses them. But this year, as the pandemic continues to disrupt so much for our young people, the gaps in their skills and our STEM-related workforce are in danger of widening.

A study published in the International Journal of STEM Education[1] assessed the correlation between STEM career knowledge, confidence in mathematic ability, career interests and career activities, and the likelihood of middle school students pursuing a STEM career. Analysis showed that students, “have a limited STEM career knowledge with respect to subject requirements and with respect to what sort of activities these careers involve.” Simply put, young people will not pursue careers they do not know about.

How can we reach students when so many are separated from the labs, field trips and educators that make these connections? I am reminded of my upbringing and where I first became inspired. It all started at home.

Growing up near Niagara Falls in Ontario, Canada, I lived near an inland harbor on a ship canal about a fourth of a mile from a municipal wastewater treatment plant. I spent my youth watching planes, rowboats and ships and attended a tour of the wastewater treatment plant with my Cub Pack. These things that only seemed ‘neat’ to me at the time may well have influenced who I was to become and what I would do professionally.

I went on to serve in the Navy as a marine engineering mechanic, which most certainly led me to a career in the water and wastewater industry that I have enjoyed for more than 35 years.

Did that early exposure to these opportunities set me on my life’s path? Perhaps. The research shows that connecting our youth to STEM opportunities and providing experiences that create a natural curiosity can, and do, have a profound impact on future work opportunities.

Right now, we have the opportunity to inspire a new generation and reach those who are often overlooked.

Data from international math and science assessments show two out of three American women said they were not encouraged to pursue a STEM career[2], and 40 percent of Black students switch out of STEM majors before earning a degree.[3] But where there is exposure, there is interest. Moms who communicate about STEM lead to girls being 20 points more interested, and 63 percent of middle school girls who know women in STEM feel empowered to pursue those fields.[4]

At SouthWest Water Company, we recently asked ourselves what we could do to help more than five million Texas school children who have adapted to partial or complete online learning and the adults in their lives who work overtime to keep them engaged. We put together a set of free, self-paced experiments for young people to learn more about water conservation and the STEM field of water utilities. We are calling it “H2ome.”

The seven activities include options for various age and ability levels and include hands-on water experiments using household products, some observational techniques, and media for viewing and discussion. Each is designed to supplement formal education for students who want to have fun and test various water-related concepts in STEM education. To view experiments and activities through H2ome, visit www.swwc.com/h2ome.

I invite you to light a spark with the young people in your life. It may not lead to a lifelong career, but regardless, it will give them an appreciation of how water flows through their lives.