OP-ED: It takes A Village: Closing the STEAM gap requires early education

We’re all familiar with the popular proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.” As a 21st century society, this still holds true, literally and figuratively. For non-millennials, who grew up in a vastly different era, there is a nostalgic mindset that a diverse community of inspiring people interacting with children has a positive and sustained life-changing impact on their development. By no means should this mean the village is responsible for raising your children, but we all have a stake in their development and success.

Early exposure to career choices are often the first step in the “What do I want to be when I grow up?” conversation. Although definitive decisions won't be made for years to come, dreams and thoughts about future careers begin early. Whether policeman, fireman, truck driver, doctor, dentist, teacher, musician, sports star, and/or whatever it is their parents and relatives do, most children are passively aware and relate to the limited pool of occupations to which they are exposed.

While teachers offer an impressionable climate for first-hand learnings and experiences, parents provide the most important impact and stimulus on a child's early life. Early exposure to non-traditional learning environments not only creates a generation of new dreamers and thought leaders, but also provides them with an eye-opening and novel perspective on the limitless opportunities that is their future.

From elementary to middle school, efforts to prepare students for college and beyond are taking hold earlier than ever as a childhood surrounded by books, scholastic support and diverse role models leave permanent impressions on a young person's mind well into their late teens. That’s why early exposure to science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (STEAM) fields are especially important.

Reflected in its legacy history, American industry was built on innovation. In order to awaken dreams and inspire the next generation of innovators, problem-solvers and leaders, it's imperative to expose children to STEAM at an early age. If engaged, receptive and they've developed an interest by eighth grade, they're three times more likely to pursue careers in STEAM fields later in life.

STEAM careers are at the forefront of some of the fastest-growing industries. Conversely, they also have some of the largest gender gaps as women comprise only 26 percent of all science, tech, engineering and mathematics jobs. As they continue to grow, women are getting left behind.

Many young girls are turning away from STEAM careers during their developmental years and have completely opted out by high school. That must change and we, the village must step up to lead, advocate and champion that change.

Both within and outside the village, this is an important conversation that we must have as the future of our children is at stake.

Here in the U.S. and around the world, women are severely underrepresented in STEAM fields—career fields that are expected to grow more than 9 million jobs by 2022. No surprise, both women and men are needed to fill those jobs and we, individually and collectively, must do our part to begin to narrow the gap, especially among African American youth.

For African American communities, integrating young women in science and technology begins with planting the seed at an early age, nurturing that seed to show the impossible is possible and, cultivating girls to become a part of those fields. Ever shifting, the formative and impressionable years between teen and young adult are a principal cause for why young girls are looking away from STEAM.

Whether parent, educator, leader, STEAM alum, or just someone who cares about the village and its children, you can play a role in supporting an up-and-coming generation of young girls interested and desirous to pursue a career in STEAM.

Let’s unite as one to stimulate, inspire and change a life. At the end of the day, we’re all stakeholders in the future and success of our children.

Rajoielle “Raj” Register leads cross brand strategy and growth audience marketing at Ford Motor Company. A proud STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics) graduate, Raj embraces her education advocacy and is especially passionate about advancing impactful educational.