A Hands-On Approach to Building the STEM Workforce of Tomorrow

STEM–the acronym deployed to cover the disciplines of science, engineering, technology and math–is a hot topic right now. Statistics and studies point to a deficit in appropriately trained STEM graduates to meet the workforce demands of the future although governments, institutions, and NGOs advance STEM training as having great social and economic benefit to individuals in both developed and developing nations. UNESCO cites proficiency in science and technology as a critical element in creating economic opportunity. In the EU, the European Roundtable of Industrialists has partnered with a network of 30 European Ministries of Education to advance STEM education to meet a predicted skills gap. In the USA, numerous NGOs and initiatives have received generous funding for research and programs designed to get kids, especially girls and students  from underserved communities, interested in science and aware of the sciences as a bridge to a good job. Formally through Conservation Certification, WHC and its corporate members take a novel, practical approach to advancing STEM education. We connect corporate lands to STEM education and create informal STEM teachers from corporate employees. More than 80% of WHC projects contain elements of education, ranging from activities that engage pre-K children to PhD research projects on habitat quality and endangered species.

 Students in Scotland engage in hands-on learning at a wetland. Photo courtesy of ExxonMobil.

Students in Scotland engage in hands-on learning at a wetland. Photo courtesy of ExxonMobil.

One great example of how WHC’s corporate members address STEM education is an effort by CEMEX, a global building materials company. It has partnered with WHC in the USA in Florida to deliver education in six non-traditional classrooms located where it operates mines for a variety of aggregate materials. These classrooms welcome hundreds of children every year with curricula that allow them to develop problem solving skills through hands-on activities focused on science and technology. CEMEX’s 474 Sand Mine in Lake County, Florida, is a 1,400-acre site with a variety of wetland and upland habitats. The outdoor classroom at the facility welcomes students from elementary through high school and provides lessons that align with state education requirements in environmental education. Students learn biology through plant and animal identification and owl pellet dissection, chemistry by doing water quality testing, engineering by constructing bird boxes, and earth sciences by exploring the difference between rocks and minerals. The students discover by doing, they learn from education professionals and, in a manner unique to WHC-certified projects, from people employed in the science and engineering fields at CEMEX and elsewhere who act not only as teachers but also as mentors, modelling what an actual employee in the STEM fields does. CEMEX is a global company that recruits graduates with degrees in mining, materials, and across the spectrum of engineering disciplines. By investing in its six outdoor classrooms it invests in its own future workforce. STEM, as touted in the media and in many of the more prominent initiatives, suggests careers in white coats and clean rooms designing medicines or jobs in Silicon Valley rolling out the best new technology at feisty little startups. Just as much potential exists for careers requiring hard hats, safety vests, and the ability to drive big machinery. WHC members like CEMEX, Freeport McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc., and Toyota need a STEM-educated workforce. Many of them recognize that using conservation projects on their lands as alternative classrooms offers students hands-on experiences that provide an unforgettable introduction to STEM as well as real-life models for the mining engineers, automotive designers, or materials scientists of tomorrow.

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