Helping Kids Explore STEM Careers
The K12 Engineering Education Podcast
Helping Kids Explore STEM Careers
[Pius Wong] This is The K12 Engineering Education Podcast for August 29th, 2016.
[Pius] What do you want to be when you grow up? Recognize that question? Today’s guest is Lois Melbourne, and she’s trying to broaden kids’ answers to that question. Lois is an entrepreneur, a former CEO of a software company in the talent management and human resources industry, and now also the author of a book for kids in middle school and junior high called The STEM Club Goes Exploring. STEM, as you might know, stands for science, technology, engineering, and math. We spoke about all of this over Skype.
[Pius] Lois, thank you for joining me today.
[Lois Melbourne] Thank you.
[Pius] So I wanted to talk to you about your new book. Can you just describe a little bit of what it’s about?
[Lois] Yes, The STEM Club Goes Exploring is designed to help kids look at careers in the STEM categories and learn how to talk to adults about what their job entails and why they’re doing it. So the kids are exploring medical careers, the different jobs that are at a video game company, why someone would go to vet school but not become a vet. So just kind of opening up the territory for them to explore.
[Pius] So why did you start this book series – because this is just one book out of many, it looks like – Why did you start your book series with STEM careers as opposed to art or civil service, or anything like that?
[Lois] Well, a number of reasons. I have a passion for STEM. I’m very curious about it, having had a software company, I’ve been well-engaged in that side of the technology, but I find that engineering is incredibly inspirational, and medicine is on cutting edge of so many things, so it’s a fascinating space. It’s also very hot in the market, and there’s a lot of misconceptions for kids around STEM. So I wanted to kind of make it accessible.
[Pius] Yeah, what are some of those misconceptions, you think?
[Lois] I think one is if you’re going to go into STEM, you have to be a math superstar, and that intimidates a lot of kids and knocks them out. And it’s not the case. I don’t directly address that in the book, but I think making different types of stories available will hopefully encourage them to check it out, but I think that’s a myth. Thankfully I think we’re debunking the gender myth. I think we’re past that at the kids’ age. Not that there isn’t still work to do there, but I don’t think it’s as intimidating a wall as it used to be. And looking at education levels, I think there’s a lot of fear that you have to be the, you know, the valedictorian in school in order to go into STEM. You have to go through years of university to go into STEM. And I think those are the conversations that adults need to have with the kids.
[Pius] I love that the very first career that your characters get into is app development, like you said, and that’s how you can tell that this is a book from 2016 and not 1996.
[Pius] The girl who’s exploring that career talks about that business as a collaborative undertaking, whether you’re coding, whether you’re doing the art, whether you’re selling, and that’s really key. Did your past experience in the software industry kind of inform these decisions, inform your story here?
[Lois] Oh it certainly did, especially for the software part. Every single one of those jobs were jobs that we had in our company.
[Lois] And it is very much a teamwork position, even though in many cases developers or testers, they may telecommute, which means they may not be working in an office directly, elbow to elbow with someone, but our developers and our testers would be on messaging back and forth, or even on video back and forth and talking consistently, because there’s a great deal of interaction that’s needed to do that development. So there is certainly room for lone wolfs to work in the field, but it can also be a very social career, which I think is important and helps people not shy away from it. If they think that they’re just going to be in a dark corner coding or testing, they may think, no, I need more interaction with people than that.
[Pius] Yeah, I’m so glad you say that. I’m not sure kids know that when they think about engineering. Did you do research to help write this book, to find out about these careers and these myths?
[Lois] I certainly did. I had a blessing of working with nearly every industry under the sun because of the work that I did previously. So working with HR, human resources, software gave me exposure to a plethora of industries and jobs and such, but definitely did research into how people approach their jobs and what they like about their jobs, and also how did they know when they wanted to pursue those careers. Because I think that’s important for kids to understand. Hey, these are the things I like. Are these types of jobs something that I can do in that space?
[Pius] Yeah, I can only imagine, since you have a lot of HR experience, did you encounter STEM professionals who spoke about how they got into STEM? Did you learn about what motivates them?
[Lois] Yes, careers paths can certainly be varied, but what I find is very much a part of almost every STEM employee or professional is that they’re problem solvers, and that is usually the root of their curiosity. They want to look at an issue and plot out how we’re going to get to the answer, and that’s a very, very common trait amongst any STEM-type professional that I’ve met.
[Pius] And in your book, you do mention the big four traditional engineering disciplines of mechanical, civil, chemical, and electrical engineering, which I love. As an engineer, that’s great. How did you choose all the careers that ended up in your book?
[Lois] Oh it was so hard to cut anything off, which is one reason why it’s going to be a series. Not all of them will be STEM-related, although I could easily do an entire series on STEM, and we’ll loop back around to STEM again. But it became a matter of talking with a lot of kids about what they were interested in and what they could relate to. And so I kind of cherry-picked, if you will, the things that I thought they would grab onto most quickly. But it was very difficult to narrow that down, so on my website I’m continuing to add stories and discussions about different types of careers. And really I want to know from readers and from teachers what are their kids curious about, because I can feed the content based on priorities that people have. That’s a forever request that I have out there. Tell me what you need, because I want to produce information that the teachers and the students and the parents are looking for to help inspire their kids.
[Pius] And speaking of your website, that’s www.myfuturestory.com, correct?
[Pius] A lot of people might find it challenging to talk about STEM or engineering careers to kids in a way that is actually exciting and engaging and still accurate, but you’ve already – it sounds like – done some of that work thinking about that. Do you have any tips for these parents or teachers, when it comes to communicating to kids about these careers?
[Lois] I think a lot of it is going to not include job titles. Sometimes adults think that if they ask a kid what they want to be when they grow up, they’re expecting a job title to come back at them, because that’s how adults categorize people. I think it’s often better to say, what types of things do you want to do for the rest of your life? That gets a very different answer. So if it’s then building things, OK, what kinds of building things do you want? What are you fascinated by? Is it electronics? Is it mechanical? You know, mechanical engineers are known as the movement engineer. If it moves, if it creates things, then it’s mechanical engineering. So pulling words out from kids that are in their language, and then it becomes the adults’ responsibility to help do some of that translation. But not to expect a kid to pop out with a job title.
[Pius] Right, not to have adult language coming out of the kids’ mouths. Sounds like a lot of what you’re saying to do is ask more questions rather than tell them certain things.
[Lois] Yes. One example is, it’s not a STEM example, but it’s a good discussion, is: A young lady that was very interested in theater, and her parents were maybe not thrilled with the fact, thinking oh she’s going to go and thinks that she’s going to be an actress. And what she really found was what she like to do was the set design and the set construction, and found that memorizing lines and doing something very repetitive was not of interest to her. She really wasn’t ready for the star of the show kind of thing, but she loves the theater. So for her case, she’s not doing theater full-time. She does theater on the side, but what she does is support the local theater groups. She gets hired to build sets and do the set design and such. So by asking, in this case, herself, because she really discovered it once she was in college, she was asking herself: what was it about theater that was so interesting? It wasn’t the front of the house. It was the back of the house. Sometimes it’s the aurora around a career that brings kids into what it is that they want to do.
[Pius] Then when it comes to STEM careers or engineering careers, what would you say are some key signs that that type of career is right for you or right for your kid?
[Lois] I believe a lot of it is the curiosity is key. I mentioned that earlier. That they want to know how do things work, how are things made. Is one thing stronger than another? They kind of test physical limits sometimes, to see how things will work or what will work better. Somebody that likes to go through the testing process. Well this board won’t work. I can’t get my skateboard up that, it bends too much. Well what about that board. That one’s too this, or that one’s too that. When they’re willing to go through that test-experiment process, it may not be the classic experiment in the kitchen making a bowl full of stuff, making a mess, although that will tell you something, but in anything, where they’re building something, and they’re looking for a new way, or a better way. Any child that’s addicted to cardboard and duct tape, and you know, widgets and gadgets and creates stuff is very possibly on the way to an engineering career. I think also tenacity is important, which is something that can be developed, but some kids have it, and some don’t. Will they give up really easily? Or will they continue to make an effort to solve the problem? That’s needed not just for engineering, although incredibly important for engineering, but for many STEM careers, is that you don’t give up until you have the problem solved.
[Pius] Yeah, and I’m super interested because that is another hot topic, especially in educational research for engineering and other fields. Do you have any thoughts on how kids can get that tenacity if they don’t appear to have it?
[Lois] I think sometimes it is a matter of teamwork. Sometimes the reason a kid might want to give up is because they feel like they’re isolated with the problem, so helping them by giving them maybe alternatives, or different tools, or helping them talk through what it is that you’re trying to solve, gets them maybe over the frustration hump and into the next reward, if you will. Sometimes just knowing it’s time to give up on a project, you know. You’re not going to build the rocket in your back yard.
[Pius] Yeah, they say that to be a good engineer you have to deal with failure properly.
[Lois] That’s very important. We have to let our kids fail and learn from the failure. Why did it fail? Instead of sweeping the failure under the rub, it’s a matter of celebrating it, saying hey we got partway. We know what doesn’t work. So those are things that teachers and parents can certainly encourage. A great example, which is kind of fun, is the Mythbusters TV show where they don’t get it right the first time. They often have to try over and over again and, using that as an example of – sometimes it’s competition that they have, but the fact that they don’t get it right – And these guys are material experts with what they’re working with, and they have to try several things in order to see what will actually work, and sometimes they fail.
[Pius] Some kids who are interested in STEM fields or in an engineering career, often times they’ll be told, you have to go to college. You have to get this four-year degree. You have to get your Masters. But not all kids go to college. Not all kids get four-year degrees. Do you have any suggestions or ideas for what some kids can go into if they want to work in these fields but they don’t know that they want to go to a four-year college?
[Lois] There’s, in many cases, there are certainly non-degree jobs where you might be someone’s assistant. So you might be working in an engineering organization, but you might be the technician, if you will, where you can still be elbow-to-elbow with someone. And also looking at things that are – Programming for example. Yes, there are some employers that say you must have a degree, and that’s a whole other soapbox that I can get onto. But there’s so much that can be self-taught in programming, and with programming languages becoming more and more accessible. Certainly entrepreneurs, people that are building websites, et cetera. Testers, analysts. Not all of those require degrees, but they require you to possibly learn on your own and be self-taught, because you’re not going to walk in the door and say, I’ve never coded but hire me because I’m smart. That’s not going to work.
[Pius] I’m sure you didn’t hire anyone like that.
[Lois] No. [laughs]
[Pius] Did you work with any technicians like that in your company or in your experiences?
[Lois] Yes, I had many even senior managers that were in development that did not have a college degree. They were self-taught, started with one language, moved into another, advanced to another. Also in web development, we had several of our professionals there did not have degrees. It was not a hangup that we had for our hiring. We were looking for the right mentality and skillset and aptitude.
[Pius] What are your upcoming plans for your next book?
[Lois] So my next book is called Kids Go to Work Day, and it is along the same storyline, if you will, different characters. They’re not exploring STEM. They’re exploring other types of careers, not-for-profit careers and creative careers. And then it will be out this fall. Then the third book is all back to our most recent conversation was, that it will all be careers that do not require a degree.
[Pius] Ah, OK. I’m sure that there will be some STEM careers in that, as well.
[Lois] Yes, yes there will be, and I already have part of another STEM book underway. I know I have to do more, because there’s too much fun stuff out there.
[Pius] Yeah, you got your work cut out for you, I’m sure.
[Pius] Do you have plans beyond the book? I know you’ve got the website, but do you have any more businesses lined up for you?
[Lois] Yes, I’m working to open up field trips, if you will, for organizations that will allow kids to go and explore different employers. So you know, let’s go see the robots at an Amazon distribution center, and let people understand what types of jobs that they could pursue and give them a real flavor of the type of work environments there are. So that is something that we will be working with probably primarily with not-for-profit organizations that are trying to give kids exposure that maybe they’re kdis can’t give them access to those types of things. I would love to do school field trips as well, but the school process, that’s a big learning curve.
[Pius] Yeah, I’ve had a little bit of experience with that, and there’s a lot of stuff to take care of. But it sounds amazing what your plans are. I know a lot of teachers would be interested in that, if you can get that going. So thank you so much for speaking with me again, Lois. Where can people find your book?
[Lois] So my book’s available at Barnes and Noble, or at Amazon, and The STEM Club Goes Exploring, you can also find if there are librarians or teachers if they have Net Galley access, then they can actually get a free download of the e-version, so that they can check that out and see if they want to look at it for their own school.
[Pius] Great. And if someone wants to connect with you or just find out more about what you’re doing, how can they do that?
[Lois] My website is www.myfuturestory.com, and I’m also on Twitter as just @LoisMelbourne. And then we have the Facebook page is myfuturestories, plural, is a group there where we’re really doing a lot of reposting of content that’s out there, but really trying to aggregate things, especially for teachers and parents that are wanting to help their kids explore.
[Pius] OK, that sounds excellent. Lois, thank you so much, and good luck with all your work.
[Lois] Thank you, and I look forward to more of your podcasts.
[Pius] [laughs] Thanks.
[Pius] Links to Lois Melbourne’s website and Twitter are in the show notes. You can connect ot this podcast on Facebook, Google Play, iTunes, and other media. Check out the podcast website for all the links: www.k12engineering.net. Thanks for subscribing and reviewing the show, and please listen in next time.
[Pius] The views expressed in this podcast are our own, and they’re not necessarily the opinions of any schools or other groups with which we might be connected. Our theme music comes from “School Zone” by The Honorable Sleaze. Our interlude music is from “Theme P” by Steve Combs, and our closing music is from “Late for School” by Bleepter. All are used under Creative Commons Attribution Licenses.