13 Steps That High School Students Can Follow to Prepare for Careers in STEM
The preparation for a career in STEM begins in high school before a student even enrolls in college. While many high school students are hyper-focused on taking the hardest classes and getting the highest GPA so they can be admitted to the best colleges, the reality is that grades and courses are only part of what prepares a student for a career in STEM. Most experienced and successful STEM professionals will agree that in addition to high scholastic aptitude, skills such as teamwork, collaboration, problem-solving, critical thinking, and creativity are equally important. High school students can easily begin practicing these skills in high school if they know which courses and extracurricular activities to participate in.
Below is a list of 13 steps that high school students can follow to grow their interest in STEM and prepare them for a career in STEM. Although it may not be feasible to follow every step, students will significantly benefit from following as many of the steps as possible.
1. Take Math and Science Courses
The subjects of math and science provide the foundation for occupations in STEM. Below is a list of typical high school math and science classes that will prepare students for a STEM curriculum in college. Honors and advanced placement (AP) courses are highly recommended for the following courses if offered.
Economics (see the second note below)
NOTE: The above list is not all-inclusive. Students should check their high school course catalog for a list of math and science courses offered. Students also should consult their school counselor or college career and readiness counselor with any questions.
NOTE: There is a growing debate in academic circles as to whether economics should be classified as social science or STEM. Per the Optional Practical Training Extension for STEM Students (STEM OPT), international graduates of designated STEM programs are allowed to apply to work in their field in the United States for two years longer than an international graduate of a non-STEM field; hence, some colleges have reclassified economics as a STEM to help recruit more international students.
The STEM case for economics is also based on the statistics, algebra, and calculus required at the undergraduate level and the additional advanced math needed at the graduate level. Also, some engineering curricula require a course in engineering economics. Engineering economics is the application of economic principles and calculations to the evaluation of engineering designs and projects.
2. Take Career and Technology Education Courses
Nearly all public high schools in America offer career and technology education (CTE) for students. Although some students may not hold CTE in the same regard as STEM honors and AP courses, high school CTE can especially benefit students pursuing engineering careers because these programs prioritize hands-on application and implementation of technology. College engineering programs emphasize theory and design over hands on-application and implementation, even though engineers in practice often do hands-on work. Taking a CTE course in high school can give students a greater appreciation for the type of hands-on work that engineers often perform in real life. An added benefit of taking CTE courses is that students may be able to earn certifications that could benefit them later in their careers.
Any of the typical CTE classes below can help prepare students for an engineering and technology curriculum in college:
Architectural Design & Drafting
Manufacturing (electrical wiring, carpentry, metalworking)
NOTE: Students should speak with their career and college readiness counselor to make sure that any credit received for technology courses will be accepted by the university engineering program he or she is pursuing.
3. Take Introductory Engineering Courses
Engineering preparatory courses expose high school students to the discipline of engineering prior to admission to college. Students will apply principles of math and science to solve real-world engineering problems. Students will also gain knowledge in design, construction, operation, maintenance, and manufacturing processes.
Students interested in engineering should take the following engineering prep courses if offered by their high school:
Introduction to Engineering Design
Principles of Applied Engineering
Engineering Design and Development
Engineering and Design Problem Solving
NOTE: This list is not all-inclusive. Students should check their high school catalog for a list of engineering prep courses offered. Students also should consult their school counselor or career and college readiness counselor with any questions.
4. Develop Soft-Skills
STEM professionals need to have very good communication skills. Occupations in STEM require professionals to be clear and organized in their writing and to provide documents that are easy to understand. For these reasons, four years of English is a must. There are even studies by neuroscientists that show that reading literary fiction can help readers improve skills such as critical thinking, empathy, and theory of mind. These three skills are important for STEM professionals who work with other professionals.
Oftentimes, STEM careers require professionals to communicate their ideas in front of large audiences. Sometimes STEM professionals must even convince colleagues or other professionals that their ideas and solutions will work. This usually includes explaining technical topics to non-technical people. STEM professionals often present their work at meetings, seminars, conferences, and trade shows. STEM professionals may even have to present to groups of potential investors. These examples illuminate why high school courses such as speech, debate, and theater can help students gain confidence in public speaking and persuading others.
Learning a foreign language can greatly benefit students pursuing careers in STEM. Research conducted by the National Institute of Health concluded that bilingual individuals have a greater ability to multitask than monolingual individuals. A second language can also increase cultural awareness which is important when working with diverse teams as a STEM professional.
Studying and creating art can also help students become more creative in their STEM careers. This is especially true for engineering. In an article for the National Society for the Professional Engineers, Stuart G. Walesh, Ph.D., P.E., says:
Doing art enhances the development and ability of engineers. We see more details; more effectively represent three-dimensional objects with two-dimensional images; compose more-communicative text and images for presentations, published articles, and papers; and produce more creative processes, products, structures, facilities, and systems.
Some STEM professionals may even reach a point in their careers where they must entertain customers or expand their network. Golf is often used by all kinds of professionals to network in their fields. According to data compiled by Syracuse University’s online MBA program, 54% of CEOs see golf as the perfect networking tool and 80% agree that playing golf aids in establishing new business contacts. So, if there is an opportunity to join the high school golf team, students certainly stand to benefit from early exposure to this important networking tool.
In addition to golf, other team sports such as basketball, football, and baseball or even club sports like the chess club can help students learn the benefits of teamwork and help students develop persistence and patience. All these skills are important for STEM professionals working in team environments.
5. Participate in STEM Academic Competitions
STEM academic competitions are great because students are exposed to teamwork while competing for team and/or individual honors and awards. Also, per an article published in the International Journal of Science Education with regards to STEM competitions, students who participate in STEM academic competitions are “more likely to express interest in a STEM-related career at the end of high school than are students who do not participate”.
There are several options for students who want to participate in STEM academic competitions. Science fairs are probably the most popular. The International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), for example, is hosted by the Society of Science and is the world’s largest international pre-college STEM competition. Qualifying for the international science fair requires competing in local and regional competitions.
The U.S. Department of Energy hosts an annual National Science Bowl. It is a nationwide competition consisting of biology, chemistry, Earth science, physics, energy, and math. Teams consist of four students, one alternate, and a teacher who serves as an advisor and coach.
Olympiads are competitive events where gifted pre-university students participate in competitions at the highest levels. The International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO), for example, is maybe the most prestigious mathematics competition in the world. For high school students to compete in the IMO they first must participate in the American Mathematics Competitions (AMC). The AMC 12 is for students under the age of 19.5 and in grades 12 and below. The AMC 10 is for students under the age of 17.5 and in grades 10 and below. Students who do well on the AMC exams are then invited to take the American Invitational Mathematics Exam (AIME) followed by either the USA Mathematical Olympiad (USAMO) or the USA Junior Mathematical Olympiad (USAJMO). The top participants from the USAMO are then invited to the Mathematical Olympiad Program (MOP) which is an intensive summer 3-week summer program conducted at Carnegie Mellon University. The goal of the MOP is to train the participants and select six members for the US team in the International Mathematical Olympiad.
The IMO is just one of the 14 commonly recognized science olympiads, however. Two other popular science olympiads in the United States are the USA Biolympiad (USABO) and the US National Chemistry Olympiad (USNCO) conducted by the American Chemical Society (ACS). Both olympiads are like the USAMO where testing allows advancement to more challenging rounds with the goal of representing America in the international competition.
If you’re lucky, your State High School Association may conduct academic competitions. For example, the State of Texas has the University Interscholastic League (UIL) which runs the UIL Academic program. Within the program is a UIL STEM program that includes high school competitions for the following: Calculator Applications, Computer Science, Mathematics, Number Sense, and Science. Check your local state association to see if your state conducts similar academic competitions.
6. Participate in Robotics
Robotics is important because students use academic skills to build and design robotic prototypes in a classroom and team setting. Students also can learn about artificial intelligence and programming in the robotic and automation industry. Students usually participate in teams and compete for prizes and awards. Below are some of the more popular robotics competitions:
NOTE: If robotics isn’t taught in your high school, students and parents should speak with the school’s science teachers to see if he or she is interested in starting a class.
7. Attend STEM Camps and Scholars/Research Programs
The impact of student participation in STEM camps and research programs is quite profound. In a study performed on college-going students, those who attended a university- or college-run STEM club or program activity (CPA) during high school were 1.49 more likely to express interest in STEM careers than students who did not participate in a STEM CPA.
STEM camps and summer research programs are important because it gives students an opportunity to grow their academic learning and apply this knowledge in a practical way. STEM camps and research programs help improve problem-solving, critical thinking, and communications skills.
NOTES: Acceptance into a pre-college program does not guarantee that a student will be accepted into the university. Precollege programs vary in quality, so thoroughly research each program before selecting one to attend; top-rated engineering schools may not have the best summer camps. Some pre-college programs are free, but others require payment. Some pre-college programs provide financial assistance while others do not. Some require students to be residents of the local area. There are a few pre-college programs that offer virtual options. Application dates vary throughout the year, so check the links frequently or sign up for email notifications.
See below for a list of STEM summer camps and research programs. Some of the links include non-STEM opportunities as well.
Engineering Camps at the Top 10 Engineering Programs in America
NOTE: MIT and Carnegie Mellon have lots of pre-college opportunities!
Ivy League Summer Engineering Camps
NOTE: Brown University has lots of awesome pre-college opportunities!
HBCU Summer Engineering Camps & Programs for High School Students
Other University Summer Engineering Camps
Summer Engineering and Research Programs Offered by Engineering Organizations and Other Groups
Science, Mathematics, and Computer Science Summer Camps
Summer Medicine Programs
NOTE: If any of the links above become inactive, google the name of the program and the university as the camp may still exist, but the school may have changed the web page location.
8. Obtain STEM Related Summer Internships
High school internships in STEM are important because students get to explore potential career opportunities in STEM, learn basic workplace skills, and get real-world experience. Below are some STEM-related summer internships available to high school students:
NOTE: If any of the links above become inactive, google the name of the program as the internship opportunity may still exist, but the school or organization may have changed the web page location.
9. Join STEM Clubs
Extracurricular STEM clubs can help grow high school students' interest in STEM. According to a study performed in the Journal of STEM Education: Innovations and Research, “students who attended STEM after-school clubs had a higher percentage of post-secondary matriculation in STEM majors than the national average”. The study also found that “engaging students with STEM-related clubs in the early years of their secondary education cultivates STEM interest in students, thus considering STEM fields as a profession”.
Fortunately, there are many STEM club options for high school students. For example, clubs such as the Math Club, Physics Club, and Science Club are great options for students. The National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), The Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE), and the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) all have STEM communities for K-12. The Technology Student Association (TSA) is a national organization of students who are engaged in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
Student members of organizations such as NSBE Jr, SHPE Jr, and SWENext benefit from relationships with professional organizations. Oftentimes, the students can participate in summer camps, participate in quiz bowls, receive newsletters, and benefit from mentorship and scholarship opportunities. Also, student officers in these types of clubs develop leadership skills that will benefit them in college and as professionals.
NOTE: If none of these student-led clubs exist at your school, speak to one of your STEM teachers to see if he or she is interested in sponsoring the organization or similar organizations. For ethnic and gender-focused organizations, you usually do not have to be a member of the ethnicity or gender to participate.
10. Find a Makerspace
High school students who don’t have many STEM options at their school or need a weekend/summer activity should consider makerspaces. A makerspace is a community-operated, collaborative workspace for people with common interests in making, learning, and exploring. Common interests can include computers, machining, technology, science, and art. Makerspaces are often located within schools, libraries, or other public/private facilities. Makerspaces provide makers with tools and resources for their projects. Tools vary from space to space but can include 3D printers, laser cutters, and even CNC machines.
11. Consume STEM-Related Media
According to a survey from ZenBusiness, 58% of the respondents claimed that their career was at least slightly inspired by a movie, TV show, book, podcast, or video game. In fact, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (forensic chemistry), Grey’s Anatomy (medicine), and ER (medicine) were three of the top four TV shows that inspired careers according to the survey results. Shows such as Numb3rs and comedies such as The Big Bang Theory could also inspire the next generation of mathematicians and physicists.
Nonfictional shows such as NOVA on PBS, Modern Marvels on The History Channel, and How Did They Build That on Smithsonian TV are even more examples of TV shows that can develop high school students' interest in STEM. Old episodes of popular science shows such as MythBusters can be found on streaming platforms and NASA TV could be an opportunity for inspiration, too.
There are also lots of STEM podcasts available and movies about real-life STEM-related events that can inspire high school students.
NOTE: Be careful when watching TV dramas and comedies because the media often reinforce myths and stereotypes about STEM professionals.
12. Find a Mentor
Mentorship can help promote interest and greater academic achievement in students. Mentors can serve as role models and help encourage students. STEM mentors can also break some of the stereotypes held about professionals in STEM. Mentors can also provide accurate descriptions of their occupations as opposed to the sometimes-distorted portrayals of STEM characters in the media.
In a study circulated as a working paper through Brow University’s Annenberg Institute for School Reform, the authors found that through mentorship, students were 10 to 25 percentage points more like to attend college and estimated that the average annual earnings of students may increase between 6% and 17.9%.
Unfortunately, formal, or even informal mentoring opportunities can be challenging to find. This is especially true for students who come from minority groups. Teachers and counselors can certainly serve as mentors, but the reality is that educators have lots of students and their time is limited. For students and parents who struggle to find STEM-related mentors, there are some options. Professional organizations such as NSBE, SHPE, and SWE have local chapters that often have members willing to mentor younger students. Even the collegiate chapters of these organizations are great options as college students can describe their experiences as college students studying STEM.
IDEA: Nothing can replace mentors, but in lieu of mentors, some companies have STEM days or offer tours of their facilities. If students cannot find mentors, parents could reach out to their local companies and try and arrange site visits where students can meet professionals. Museums, zoos, and aquariums could also be good places to meet STEM professionals.
13. Develop Leadership Skills
According to research conducted by Academic Influence, STEM degrees are among the most common undergraduate degrees for Fortune 500 CEOs. In fact, 3 of the most common undergraduate degrees are in STEM. In 2021 there were 96 CEOs leading Fortune 500 companies with engineering degrees which was the most common degree among Fortune 500 CEOs. Computer science and mathematics were the sixth and ninth most common undergraduate degrees among Fortune 500 CEOs. Interestingly, economics which is sometimes considered to be part of STEM is the second most common undergraduate degree for Fortune 500 CEOs.
Unfortunately, everyone won’t be a CEO during their career, but professionals with STEM degrees will likely hold various leadership positions throughout their careers. Leaders in STEM occupations may need to direct teams and be responsible for coaching and developing team members. They may be responsible for managing schedules and budgets and collaborating across functional groups. STEM professionals must sometimes manage conflict and keep their teams actively engaged.
With so many STEM graduates leading companies and groups within organizations, leadership skills are just as important as technical knowledge. As a result, student leadership in high school is important because it sets the stage for future leadership in college and in their future careers. Student leaders get to practice developing soft skills such as public speaking, negotiation, persuasion, and emotional intelligence. These skills can take time to develop so early practice leads to more opportunities to improve the skills.
There are numerous ways for students to develop their leadership skills. A student can take on a leadership role in a club at their school. A student can really develop their soft skills by starting a new club that does exist or by reviving a dormant club. A student could also become a team lead on their robotics, quiz bowl, and olympiad teams. Leadership opportunities don’t even have to be related to STEM. For example, a student can also develop their leadership through sports by leading their team or a group of teammates.
High school students who have an interest in STEM clearly benefit from early and consistent exposure to both challenging academic courses and extracurricular activities. STEM professionals need to be well-rounded. High scholastic achievement in math and science will help prepare students for STEM occupations, but to be most successful students need to begin developing their soft skills, too. Students can learn how to work in teams through extracurricular activities such as academic bowls, science fairs, and team sports. Courses such as English, art, debate, and drama can help students develop empathy and critical thinking. Camps, internships, and research programs can give students greater insight into the type of work that STEM professionals perform in practice. Active participation in high school STEM clubs can give students early exposure to the type of leadership skills required in college and in their future STEM careers.
Additional STEM Educational Resources
Below are some additional resources that may be helpful for students pursuing STEM Careers.