May 25, 2017 by

College has become increasingly expensive. A semester at the University of Nebraska at Omaha now costs more than $3,000, leaving many parents—and students—wondering how to increase their ROI on college expenditure.

One of the best ways is to go into a profession that relies on science, technology, education, or mathematical knowledge.

Young people with a bachelor’s degree and with three or fewer years of experience in their field earn less than $40,000, according to a study conducted last year by Forbes, but those in STEM occupations can earn much more. One of the highest paid STEM positions, a petroleum engineer, can earn more than $85,000 with only three years’ experience and a bachelor’s degree.

Unfortunately, those lucrative loan-repayment-worthy STEM professions are underrepresented by minority and women employees. Stereotypes persist, discouraging possible candidates based on the misconception that STEM fields of study are “hard” or “boring” or “unwelcoming.”

Neal Grandgenett, the Dr. George and Sally Haddix Community Chair of STEM Education at UNO, says it’s not hard to break those stereotypes. Engaging students in camps or extracurricular activities can be effective in establishing an interest in these fields.

“I think it’s critical that parents give kids the ability to get into some of these fun camps,” Grandgenett says. “There’s fun things like rocketry and robotics. They’d be better off doing that than getting kids into more traditional math camps.”

Part of the problem, Grandgenett says, is that the camp titles do not reflect experiences that are seen as great resume-builders. Parents who want to accelerate their students in their studies may actually benefit from allowing their student(s) to delve deeper into a subject.

“Parents may gravitate away from something like “The Science of Zombies,” because it doesn’t sound useful, but it might have practical applications,” Grandgenett says. “They might talk about disease transmission and how to prevent it. The title of the camp may not be reflective of how applicable to the STEM fields it really is.”

Even throughout the school year, Grandgenett says, there are a lot of ways that students can become interested in these fields. One way is to attend speaking engagements that are open to the public. Omaha Performing Arts, for example, showcases “National Geographic Live,” in which noted researchers, writers, and photographers spend an evening discussing their adventures. These guest speakers can make STEM subjects sound exciting.

As well as being fun, Connie O’Brien, director of the Aim for the Stars summer math and science camps at UNO, says making sure boys and girls are given an equal chance to succeed in these areas is essential.

O’Brien says, “In the last 10-15 years, we have caught on to the fact that we need to teach in ways that catch [girls’] brains. When we give kids a rocket to build, for example, boys will pull out one item, then another, then start putting the two pieces together. Girls take out all the pieces and make a picture in their minds, then assemble the project.”

Women make up 73 percent of all employees in the social and life sciences, such as psychology and biology, but make up less than 30 percent of employees in many of the physical sciences, such as engineering.

“I was expected to get a college degree in nursing or teaching,” O’Brien says. “That didn’t work for me.”

It didn’t work for Allison Sambol, either. Sambol is an environmental scientist at Felsburg Holt & Ullevig, and a prime example of using a college degree to dive into a STEM career.

“I am a geographer. I went to college and I took all general studies, and my geography course was my favorite,” Sambol says. “When I graduated, I was looking for jobs; I looked for anything that had consulting in the title.”

Eventually, Sambol realized that her work decisions affected many aspects of people’s lives, and she began to see the benefits to sticking with environmental science.

“On a day-to-day basis, I’m researching physical settings,” Sambol explains. “What’s around it? What type of things might affect building it? Does it contain contaminated soil or groundwater? Wetlands, do they need to be mitigated? Are there permits that needs to be maintained?”

Being in a STEM-based career, however, does not mean that she researches alone all day.

“Part of my job is in development,” Sambol says. “Working with my clients, developing relationships, and determining communities’ problems, and how people can solve those problems.”

The possibilities for a student who becomes interested in STEM subjects are limitless. Those working with computers, specifically, are much needed in Omaha and nationwide.

“The number of computer science positions is far outpacing the number of graduates we will have in those careers,” Grandgenett says. “One in five positions in computer science will not be filled due to not having the people with the skills.”

This article was printed in the Summer 2017 edition of Family Guide.