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The Importance of STEM in Youth

By Jacqueline Berry, Senior Manager of 3Mgives Corporate Community Investment. Jacqueline manages 3M’s STEM and skilled trades work, with a company goal to support 5 million learning experiences in STEM and skilled trades for underrepresented students by 2025.  

Why equitable access to science matters 

Global pandemics. Climate change. The world is facing significant science-related challenges today, and it's imperative to have all hands — or all minds, rather — on deck as the world works to solve them.  

Looking at the next generation of scientists and thinkers, there’s currently a student achievement gap in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). For students of color, participation in and access to STEM is significantly lower, and this vast education gap means a lack of equal representation when working to solve global challenges.  

It’s critical to support students who have been marginalized to get them engaged in STEM. Increased interest in STEM improves academic outcomes. One way to help advance economic equity for marginalized populations is to increase their participation in STEM jobs that pay well and solve community problems. We need to ensure that all people who want to participate in STEM and are interested in STEM have an opportunity to do so. 

Creating opportunities for equal access 

The responsibility to create greater access to STEM education does not sit solely at the steps of schools; various entities have a responsibility to create opportunities for youth whether it be through programming or funding. To expand access, society must think bigger and create meaningful learning opportunities that resonate.  

At 3M, for example, we are starting early, investing in K-5 programming to spark students’ interest in STEM. 3M’s Visiting Wizards program is a great example. The volunteer “Wizards” go to schools and do fun science demonstrations to generate interest in and excitement about STEM. Broadening students’ knowledge about what's out there, having people talk about their own careers and how they got to where they are helps students see the pathway. It is not just about experiencing science in person, it’s also about experiencing science with a person who looks like you, who may have grown up in the same environment as you and who may see the world like you. Diverse mentors help support diverse learners. 

It’s also important to give students an opportunity to apply what they've learned in the classroom to real-life situations so they can learn how STEM works in the real world. We have a program at 3M where we bring students to 3M, they work with our scientists and have a 3M scientist as a mentor. They get to work in the lab and see what the scientist does on a daily basis. We also support students with scholarships and fellowships to help them reach their STEM education goals.  

Through one of our collaborations, we're trying to get the voice of students into our grant-making process so that we can identify the barriers and the challenges they face and start to look at programs and organizations that are addressing them. 

Supporting potential  
There are also underrepresented groups in our own backyard that need support. For instance, in the Twin Cities there is a large Hmong population, and they are greatly underrepresented in STEM. So 3M supports programs that help that population by tailoring curricula and efforts to support their needs.  

As a science-based company, we want to go beyond financial support and leverage our people who are incredibly passionate about talking to students and getting them interested in and excited about STEM. It’s a combination of our dollars, the talents of our employees and our products in terms of product donations. We do it by working with community partners — they are closest to the communities we want to serve and can help identify the needs. We go in and support programs that they think will be the most effective.  

There’s a saying, “If you can't see it, it's hard to be it, so you can't be it if you don't see it.” Our dollars are important, but it's really about our people and the difference that we can make together to inspire the next generation of thinkers.