Greetings from Vienna, Austria. This week I have the opportunity to attend the European Petrochemical Association’s annual conference. One of the sessions I attended was “When and Why Do Children Make STEM Career Choices?” I was curious to get a European perspective on the issues and opportunities they face in encouraging children to pursue a career in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Do they face the same hurdles that we do in the U.S.? The short answer is “yes.”

According to one of the session speakers, Joy Parvin – Director of the Chemical Industry Education Centre (CIEC) at the University of York, research shows that, as young as nine years old, over half of the individuals polled by CIEC had a firm idea about their future occupation. 28% said they would study and work in science in the future. However, responses in the poll and analysis of existing examinations data, suggested that a large number of students who could potentially follow a science-related career are rejecting this option by the time they reach the age of 16. Many students do not have a good sense of what is involved in science-related jobs. Thankfully CIEC works with the chemical industry in the UK on conducting effective site visits for kids and ambassador visits for schools. When polled, 70% of the kids remembered the site visits five years after, and pupils who remembered the visit were two times more likely to want to work in the industry. That type of impact is impressive and stresses the importance of showing students what the industry is about.

The challenge therefore is to engage and inspire these students so that STEM becomes a viable choice that they consider. One of the session’s industry participants, Borealis, discussed various initiatives with their local schools to introduce children to STEM education. In addition to sponsoring several schools and supplying new lab equipment, two programs caught my attention. The first was a summer program for students interested in chemistry. The students get to attend a multitude of sessions at a university in Austria and also participate in a four week program working directly at the company. Another initiative called “Power Girls” is geared towards middle school girls interested in chemistry. The Power Girls program, supported by a number of petrochemical companies in Europe, is a great opportunity for young women to immerse themselves in the world of chemistry by working directly with industry. It provides hands on experience which can make a lasting impression.

Here in the U.S. we are seeing more AFPM members stepping up to address the STEM challenge. ExxonMobil, Phillips 66, Tesoro, Dow (and the list goes on) realize that revitalizing STEM education and increasing the number of students who choose STEM majors and careers is imperative for the future of the fuel and petrochemical industry. STEM literacy opens doors to employment in every industry, sector, and profession, not just in traditional STEM fields – from entry-level jobs which may require a certificate or associates’ degree to jobs in the C-Suite.

As an unabashedly biased engineer (who thinks math and science are the best), we need to do more to encourage kids to consider a STEM path. In the U.S. we need to change the equation so kids can take advantage of the great opportunities which STEM can provide.

Melissa Hockstad

Posted by Melissa Hockstad

Melissa Hockstad is the former Vice President of Petrochemicals for AFPM. To learn more about AFPM, visit