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Opinion: Hurricane Michael’s first lesson? We need more STEM.

It will likely be many months before the full damage caused by Hurricane Michael is known, but this recent Axios article caught our attention: “Hurricane Michael underwent a period of explosive intensification that was not explicitly forecast by any computer models or human forecasters.”

In other words, because what we’re seeing is unprecedented, we need to continue to move as quickly and creatively as possible to develop a better understanding of these types of storms, along with effective mitigation strategies.

This has been an ongoing challenge for scientists, and when you throw a projected shortage of 1.1 million STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) workers by 2024, the challenge becomes even greater. Bottom line: if you think this approach is sustainable, think again.

As leaders and proponents in calling for enhanced investments in STEM, we have three suggestions for how to support STEM to make sure that we’re prepared for the “new normal.” These are long-term plays, for certain, but the urgency could not be higher.

Dr. JeffriAnne Wilder

Aspirations of careers in science and technology have dominated the dreams of young children’s minds for generations. Many kindergartners muse about one day growing up to be astronauts, scientists or engineers. In fact, Fatherly’s 2017 Imagination Report points out that childhood dreams of future careers have changed very little over the past several decades.

Science-based occupations dominated the Top 10 list of most popular jobs for kids of all ages. For 4- and 5-year-olds in particular? They aspire most to be vets, scientists and doctors.

Dr. Kevin Petty

In recent years, discussions around the importance of  STEM education at the early childhood and elementary levels have yielded a variety of programs and initiatives aimed at bolstering the active scientist in every young child.

For instance, the Girl Scouts Journeys Series — a leadership platform for girls at every age level — includes three STEM-centered initiatives: Think Like an Engineer, Think Like a Programmer and Think Like a Citizen Scientist. These programs allow troop members to engage in a variety of action-oriented tasks that make STEM fun while also building leadership skills in girls.

Despite these efforts, we’re facing a serious shortfall in qualified workers for STEM jobs. According to the American Action Forum, by 2024 the United States will be lacking 1.1 million STEM workers.

The Department of Labor reports that by 2020, there will be only enough workers to fill just 30 percent of the anticipated STEM positions.

What’s happening? The dearth of STEM workers almost certainly cannot be attributed to a lack of aspiration. We know that 5-year-olds are dreaming of STEM-related careers.

Many local and national programs encourage young children to follow these dreams, offering pathways to make them reality. If the seeds of STEM have been planted by the time children reach kindergarten, why is there such a shortage of STEM workers? What happens later?

The labor shortage in the STEM fields can simply be attributed to a lack of diversity in the recruitment and retention of the talent pool. Girls, women and people of color are regular and avid users of technology, but they lag behind in representation and participation at all levels.

According to a Pew Research study earlier this year, African-Americans account for just 9 percent of all STEM jobs and Hispanic-Americans for only 7 percent. Women only represented 26 percent of the computing workforce in 2017, and women of color made up a much smaller proportion of the computing field: Asian-American women represented just 5 percent of the computing workforce.

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Early exposure to STEM Education can have a lifelong impact on students — regardless of whether they end up choosing a career in STEM. Some even suggest that STEM education will unlock (or holds the key to) America’s vitality and economic security in the future. There are many ways to encourage youngsters to follow their childhood dreams.

For Parents and Families: Encourage early, often and equally. It’s never too early to expose your child to STEM. In fact, there are many toys and games available now that allow kids of all ages (even toddlers!) to learn about STEM in a fun and playful way. In addition, there are a number of local and national organizations that offer STEM programming for children. It’s vitally important to encourage girls and children of color to explore STEM. Finally, remember that you don’t have to know a lot about STEM to boost your child’s interest in a STEM-related occupation. For as cliche as it sounds, even the smallest “you can do it” can go a long way.

For Educators: Teachers, counselors, administrators and other school leaders are vital gatekeepers — and bridge-builders — for STEM. Ensure that your K-12 STEM curriculum is relevant, responsive and equitable for all students. Look into building a collaborative partnership with local and national organizations if your school or district isn’t already working with STEM-based groups. Provide professional opportunities for educators to learn more about STEM careers, and the barriers facing underrepresented individuals in STEM. Actively seek ways to disrupt unconscious bias in the classroom, school clubs/groups and in the community.

For Everyone: Don’t be afraid to become a change leader. Change leaders are people who expand and go outside their comfort zone to build community and connection; they change the local conditions that create barriers to diversifying the STEM fields.

We’re also proud of the work our own organizations are doing. The National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) was established in 2004 to significantly increase girls’ and women’s meaningful participation in computing.

NCWIT’s K-12 Alliance works with more than 200 national and local-serving organizations to bolster the recruitment, retention and advancement of girls in computing at every grade level. At Vaisala, our Giant Leap internship program is in its 10th year of offering positions to up to 20 students in both Finland and the United States to work alongside scientists on a variety of specific STEM projects each summer.

Only by making the STEM tent as large as possible — and open to everyone — will we be able to begin to keep pace with the talent demands we’re facing in order to remain competitive on a global stage in the years to come.

Dr. JeffriAnne Wilder is a sociologist and research scientist for the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT). Dr. Kevin Petty is the chief science officer at Vaisala, a global leader in environmental and industrial weather measurements, based in Helsinki, Finland, with North American headquarters in Louisville, Colo.