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November 8, 2018
Vol. 14
No. 8

STEM Career Integration in Math: A Social Justice Issue

Good teachers build self-efficacy throughout the grade levels as students consider their short-term goals for the academic year. However, as high school students start thinking about what they will do in the years ahead, it seems many teachers and students have a limited understanding of new, profitable, high-demand career options that are emerging in the age of automation, ever-changing technology, and artificial intelligence. Whether it's data analytics, cyber security, or analysis of digital signal processing, options for students continue to grow. In my experience as a high school math teacher, I know few of us who are equipped to connect math content to STEM outside of developing students' critical thinking skills.
This disconnect is a social justice issue. Students can't pursue careers they don't know exist. A simple awareness of what's available and setting goals to gain access to those options can improve students' short-term academic achievement and motivate them over the long haul (Hull-Banks, Kurpius, Befort, et. al, 2005). For example, a comparison of job opportunities for journalists versus job opportunities for STEM-related technical writers in terms of pay, environment, and availability may be enough to inspire a student to take a physics class. Research has shown that students who take physics can be more likely to declare a STEM major (Bottia, et al., 2015).
In an equitable high school context, all students, not just those signed up for STEM classes, should
  • Understand that career opportunities have shifted. As education researcher Michael Fullan's 6 Cs of Deep Learning state, there is an increased need for the STEM workforce to be able to communicate, collaborate, create, think critically and creatively, exercise good digital citizenship, and maintain strong character (Partnership, 2015).
  • Gain knowledge of a wide range of new and emerging work environments and skillsets while mastering core academic content.
  • Understand connections between classroom learning and similar thought processes in vocations.
  • Develop adaptive skills with technology during the learning process as well as in design and presentation of mastery.
High school math teachers, who have a dense curriculum to teach, tend to be concerned about diverting classroom time away from their content. However, I would argue that we should embed STEM skills and STEM-career awareness within the math content and learning processes. The Common Core State Standards have condensed much of the traditional math coverage across grade levels, freeing up more time to develop students' expertise in rich problem-solving contexts (Walker & Sherman, 2017). For students to meet the Common Core standards, they must "explain" (communicate) their mathematical thinking and model standards through collaborative environments and creative solve problems—in other words, CCSS-aligned resources provide opportunities to develop the 6 Cs.
A good first step in moving toward STEM-enriched math classes would be to understand the connections between STEM and Common Core math. Adopting nontraditional, guided inquiry teaching resources can be controversial because retention and deeper understanding depends upon the ability of the teacher, but inquiry learning tends to dramatically increase the amount of time students spend communicating, collaborating, and critically analyzing mathematical content as they master it. can be useful as teachers identify available standards-aligned textbooks (some free) that include opportunities for students to grapple with realistic mathematical scenarios. Many of those textbooks embed the latest technology for learning and presenting.
One of the complaints I hear most often from those who hold management positions is that their employees are unable or unwilling to document processes. Virtually all employees need to be able to explain their thinking verbally and in writing so that there are records of what was done, how it was done, and what still needs to be done. Collaborative math classrooms develop these skills under the watchful eyes of teachers who monitor and coach students and provide feedback. When students are learning by inquiry, they develop technical reading and writing skills more easily.
When high school teachers understand how their content is connected to parallel thought processes outside their classrooms, they can help students understand why the content is worth the effort to learn. Linear functions and rates are related to thought processes used by queuing analysts as well as traffic management for vehicles, goods, migrating species, and anything else that moves. Quadratic factoring involves strategies similar to those logistics coordinators might use. Analyzing absolute value is the same idea as working with tolerance ranges (plus/minus measurement values) in product design as well as in architecture and controlled temperature environments).
STEM integration in high school core classes should not mean setting aside content to build bridges out of toothpicks. Rather, it should be about developing 21st century skills within the normal course of our subjects. There is an enormous need for education publishers, consultants, and entrepreneurs to integrate information about contemporary careers and parallel thought processes into textbooks and e-books so that it is easily accessible to teachers. Keeping real-world ties to the classroom ensures that our teaching and students' learning will stay relevant for decades to come.

Bottia, M. C., Stearns, C. E., Mickelson, C. R., Moller, S., and Parker, A. D. (2015). The relationships among high school STEM learning experiences and students' intent to declare and declaration of a STEM major in college. Teachers College Record, 117(3). Retrieved from:

Hull-Banks, E., Kurpius, S. E., Befort, C., Sollenberger, S., Nicpon, M. F., and Huser, L. (2005). Career goals and retention-related factors among college freshmen. Journal of Career Development, 32(1), pp. 16–30. Retrieved from:

Walker, L. H., and Sherman, H. J. (2017). Common core and STEM opportunities. The Mathematics Enthusiast, 14(1), Article 23. Retrieved from:

 Lane Walker is a National Board–certified high school math teacher at Francis Howell High School in St. Charles, Mo. She holds a doctorate in curriculum and instruction with an emphasis in STEM from the University of Missouri in St. Louis. She was a 2013 Missouri state finalist for the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.

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