Expanding the school counselor repertoire through STEM-focused career development.

Author:Schmidt, Christopher D.
Position::Special Section Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM - Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics

The call to generate increased student interest in math and science careers continues to receive tremendous amounts of national attention, most recently in President Barack Obama's (2011) State of the Union address when he referred to the current climate as "our generation's Sputnik moment." Responses to this call focus predominantly on teacher training and standards-based instruction. However, considering the explosive momentum within science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education initiatives and the pivotal role school counselors can and should play in academic and career planning, school counselors would benefit from taking the necessary steps toward adopting and integrating elements of these STEM initiatives into their work.

Keywords: STEM, school counselor, career development

Educators and employment experts currently use the word crisis to describe America's present status with regard to generating a productive and relevant 21st-century workforce. The World Economic Forum (2010) ranks the United States 48th in the quality of mathematics and science education. The 2010 ACT College Readiness report indicated that 76% of high school graduates did not meet high school benchmarks for readiness in one or more freshman-level courses (American College Testing, 2010). To effectively respond to this emerging crisis and thrive within an evolving technological society, "all students need to develop their capabilities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) to levels much beyond what was considered acceptable in the past" (National Academy of Sciences, 2007, p. 1). Today's public schools are now placing greater focus on improving instruction and facilitating connections between student achievement and career interests in mathematics and science. Many federal and state agencies now fund K-12 STEM education programs and research. Overall federal funding for STEM has increased significantly. These efforts are the result of research findings indicating that the position of the United States as a global leader in the areas of innovation and competitiveness has been or will be lost if significant steps are not taken to rectify this reality (National Academy of Sciences, 2007). According to Rising Above the Gathering Storm (National Academy of Sciences, 2007) and the follow-up report, Beyond the Gathering Storm (National Academy of Sciences, 2010), U.S. public schools showed few signs of improvement, particularly in mathematics and science. The report by the National Academy of Sciences (2010), the United States' advisor on science and technology, indicated that the country ranked 27th out of 29 wealthy countries with regard to the number of college students obtaining degrees in science or engineering. The literature (Feller, 2009) has shown that these fields remain crucial for almost all endeavors of life, and all young Americans should leave school "STEM-capable."

Responses to the perceived national crisis include an increased focus on improving student ability through instruction, as well as ongoing concerns over generating greater student interest and engagement in STEM careers. Recent initiatives through the National Science Foundation, federal and state departments of education, as well as the Department of Defense address the current STEM issues by bridging the gap between enhanced instruction in mathematics and science and increasing student engagement in these career paths.

Focus groups with students, teachers, and career counselors conducted by a Department of Defense-funded initiative indicate that students need more than just exposure to STEM activities (Virginia Demonstration Project [VDP], 2010). The 6-year project suggests that additional training needs to be provided to school personnel in order to create a more explicit connection between the abstract concept of a career and the day-to-day learning experiences in the classroom. These implications go beyond career awareness and suggest that career discussions can have an impact on student academic accomplishments. Perry, Liu, and Pabian (2010) asserted that increasing student engagement through career planning in the classroom leads to higher levels of academic achievement and improved graduation rates. As Feller (2009) indicated, '"intentional learning experiences [are essential] for developing a gatekeeper's ability to communicate about STEM courses, programs, and career options" (p. 25).

Classroom efforts have received support and shown effectiveness; however, personal and emotional realms have received limited attention, and there continues to be a call in the literature (Feller, 2009, 2010; Morganson, Jones, &: Major, 2010) for enhancing school counselor involvement in STEM-related career decision making. The momentum toward STEM career planning provides ideal opportunities for school counselors to address student career trajectories, specifically, course advisement and selection, promotion of academic rigor, strategic emphasis on achievement and goal orientation, commitment to parental inclusion, and attention to underrepresented populations. In this article, we ad dress the opportunities presented to school counselors for involvement in the STEM movement and provide practical tools for integrating a STEM focus into their career development programming.


Some authors (Gibbons & Borders, 2010; National Office for School Counselor Advocacy [NOSCA], 2010) have maintained that school counselors serve as gatekeepers of student potential. They function on the front lines of career awareness and help the current generation explore the world of work. As research (Dahir, 2001) has shown, school counselors in particular can encourage students to pursue STEM-related careers that fit their unique qualities, education, and training. Increases in career and technology education, as well as formal and informal educational programs such as Project Lead the Way, have led to a resurgence of counselor participation in STEM career development. In some states, counselors engage in online career initiatives such as Career View and Wizard, as well as statewide "career coach" projects that are offered at community colleges.

Because of the transdisciplinary nature of the school counselors' roles and the extent of their potential impact on the future lives of students, it has become increasingly apparent that school counselors need to increase their awareness of 21st-century career opportunities, particularly STEM-relevant information. It is important that school counselors do not overlook their professional obligation to provide rigorous, well-rounded, exploratory, and relevant opportunities for students' career development trajectories (American School Counselor Association [ASCA], 2006). Although recent literature (Feller, 2009, 2010) has emphasized this need, obstacles remain and deliberate responses need further development.

In identifying the need for school counselor involvement in STEM outreach through focus group studies conducted in 2006 and 2010 (VDP, 2010), researchers worked with three groups of 12-15 school counselors from various schools who responded to inquiries concerning the integration of STEM into their practice and their school. Leaders facilitated, documented, and recorded discussions for further analysis. Central themes were identified, namely that school counselors from participating schools tended to have little time to review career options with students and focused less on mathematics and science career opportunities than those of other subject areas. This self-reported partiality toward more socially oriented career trajectories is understandable, given the school counselor's educational background and professional experiences, and, in the literature (Feller, 2009), has been referred to as the school counselor's "unconscious incompetence" regarding STEM, its relevance, and the school counselor's role within the initiative. In reality, school counselors have a multitude of duties; without...

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