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How to give your child a head start in math, science and beyond

(BPT) - Throughout the busy school year, many high school students across the country are already taking steps to explore college and other post-graduation opportunities. In fact, in today’s challenging economic climate and competitive job market, it has become increasingly important to begin planning for future career options at an early stage.

One area that is particularly ripe for opportunity is in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). In August, U.S. News & World Report reported that there will be a need to fill over 1.2 million STEM jobs in the U.S. by 2018. STEM careers offer lucrative and stable opportunities; for example, pharmacist jobs boast median salaries of $105,000, with a projected 25 percent job growth rate between 2010 and 2020. STEM fields are also drivers of innovation: Experts note that those working in STEM are overwhelmingly responsible for creating breakthrough inventions compared with non-STEM counterparts.

Despite the promise these career paths offer, less than one-third of eighth graders in this country are proficient in mathematics and science and fewer than 15 percent of U.S. undergraduates receive science or engineering degrees. This academic lag has resulted in the country’s STEM workforce hovering under 3 percent of the total working population.

“It is important to close these gaps because STEM fields have an enormous impact on our country’s growth and also provide rich opportunities for our youth,” says John Jones, R.Ph., J.D., who is a senior vice president at OptumRx and the chair of the Pharmacy is Right for Me educational initiative. “We should reach students early in their education to get them thinking about the opportunities the sector has to offer, and begin taking those first steps toward building careers in the diverse STEM arena.”

So how can parents and caretakers help kids embark upon successful professional journeys in STEM and related fields? Jones recommends taking the following steps:

1. Engage young students early on and provide them with an educational roadmap.  Students may not consider careers in STEM fields because they simply do not know about what those pathways can offer. Help expose kids as early as elementary and middle school to the types of unique and exciting options found through STEM. Work with your children to build a strong foundation in math and science skills, which are essential to pursuing STEM opportunities at every level – from technical positions to those requiring advanced degrees.

2. Encourage hands-on learning. Gaining real-world STEM experience through internships, summer jobs, or even participation in student innovation competitions can help kids get excited about future possibilities and apply their science and math education in creative ways. Shadowing STEM professionals in the local community can also provide a deeper understanding of what STEM professions involve on a day-to-day basis.

3. Seek out additional support both in your local community and online. Preparing for post-high school and post-college life can be extremely challenging, even with parental support. Encourage children to seek additional help at school by speaking with their guidance counselors. Find mentors at school or in the local community to provide professional guidance. Use credible Web-based resources for educational and financial information. Online resources, such as those offered through Pharmacy is Right for Me’s website, Facebook and Twitter channels, can help young students navigate through the challenges of reaching their long-term goals.

Despite the challenging job forecast, there is a wide range of prospects open to students in the thriving STEM industries. Engaging the next generation of STEM leaders by getting kids excited about these careers can help secure successful futures for youth.

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