December 8 is Pretend to Be a Time Traveler Day, the day we use our imaginations to travel to the past or future. You’ll find yourself in the future eventually, but it’s natural to want a sneak peek. Will we have flying cars at last? Will the world still revolve around silly dances on TikTok?
Not even our imaginations can answer for sure.
Three Careers in STEM
Today, we’re speaking to the students out there, asking them to think about their personal futures. Specifically, their future careers. If you’re a student, great. If you’re not, consider sharing this with one who is interested in STEM careers. We talked to three STEM professionals about their jobs and what the future might hold. There are, of course, many jobs to choose from beyond these three. And, you might decide to read only about the job that most interests you. But if you read all three, you might notice similarities that speak to STEM careers in general.
Who Answers When Public Safety Calls? (Regulatory Chemist)
History has a reputation for being a little – how can we say this delicately? – stinky. This might not be totally fair; we know that the Babylonians were making soaps from animal fats and wood ashes almost 5,000 years ago. And bathing has long been popular in much of the world. But, it’s true that cleanliness and hygiene standards have improved over human history.
In large part, we have the science of chemistry to thank for that. During the first World War, there was a shortage of the natural fats used to produce soap. Chemists stepped up to create detergents – substances with the properties of soap but made from artificial chemicals. Today, most of what we call soaps are actually detergents.
Regulatory Chemist Britnee Pond works at a company that manufactures janitorial and sanitation products. Sanitation is always crucial work. But the COVID-19 pandemic brought an added level of urgency to Pond’s role. Do you remember when people all over the world were rushing to stock up on cleaning products?
Pond manages her company’s lab and leads research and design. Her entire team uses common chemistry procedures. For example, they test the purity of substances with a technique called “refractometry.” And, they use another technique called “titration” to detect amounts of specific ingredients.
But there’s much more to chemistry than following set steps. The team also uses problem-solving and critical thinking every day to create new chemical formulas. And, when the pandemic shook up supply chains around the world, they had to put their creativity into overdrive. If an ingredient they had previously relied on could no longer be found, they had to find a new way.
Pond says she had to make more tough choices than she was used to. “We had to make hard decisions about who needed products the most and what was a fair way to distribute all of it. We had to decide how much risk we should put our employees in. . . . It was tough.”
She doesn’t sugarcoat it. A career in chemistry is a big responsibility. And that can come with sacrifices. Her team worked long, hard days to produce products that could literally make a difference between life and death. But knowing that their hard work paid off for their customers was also very rewarding. How would you feel knowing that your work helped guard someone’s health?
Even in more normal times when the stakes aren’t so high, Pond finds fascination and excitement in her field.
“I love chemistry because there’s always something new to discover, and it will always be that way. One new discovery opens 100 new questions.”
Think of that. No matter what incredible discoveries are made over the next 10 or 20 years, there will always be more to find out. The door to discovery will never close! At times in history, people have said that all the knowledge was known and all the inventions made. But those people have always been wrong.
Pond has advice for young people who are interested in a career in chemistry. “Think big – everything is chemistry! Chemistry is involved in every field and industry. It’s not just working in a lab; it’s in architecture, in factories and hospitals, and more. Chemistry plays into every single aspect of our lives, so find a field of work that’s interesting and you’ll see chemistry involved somehow.”
What If You Knew Everything? (Data Solutions Engineer)
Do you think with enough information you could solve any problem? Not so fast. Just because you have all the data, that doesn’t mean that you understand it all. Too much data can be overwhelming.
In some ways, this is a modern problem. Our computing technology simply enables us to collect more data than ever before. As humans have acquired more knowledge, they’ve had to get better at storing and organizing it. Did you know that some of the earliest computers actually used paper cards with holes punched in them to save their information and operating instructions? Decades from now, how much more information will we be able to collect and store?
Data Solutions Engineer Jamie Shive has an interesting career. Clients come to her with large amounts of data relating to their businesses. It can be hard to find the meaningful patterns and trends that are hidden within it. That’s why it’s important to know how to ask the right kinds of questions about the data.
Shive uses her background in math to ask these questions. “From making calculations to writing code to data visualization to making predictions, every single aspect of my job has a little piece of math in it,” she says.
Math is indispensable, but so is another skill – teaching. Usually, her clients don’t have the math background that Shive has, so she must find a way to communicate the insights in a way they can understand. She says, “When I communicate mathematics with non-mathematicians, I like to position myself in the student seat. I ask myself, ‘If I were on the receiving end of this information, how would I need it to be explained? What details do I need to include or emphasize?’”
With a logical and understandable description of the patterns in their data, the clients can make better decisions. This helps their companies and hopefully means serving the public more efficiently.
Making the world a better place is the great promise that technology holds for many people. But this goal is not achieved automatically just because we have more technology. Technology is guided by human wisdom and helped along through inclusivity. The complex math in Shive’s job is hard. But by far, she says, her biggest challenge has been coming into this male-dominated field as a female.
“During my later years of college and during graduate school, I was almost always the only woman in my mathematics classes. Sometimes my male classmates were kind, welcoming, and inclusive, but other times, I felt very isolated and alone in my studies. There were even occasions where it was made clear that my male classmates did not believe I belonged in classes with them.”
Shive paints a picture of the future that is optimistic but also realistic about challenges that still remain. It could still be a long time before women and other minorities are equally represented in the field. But Shive has sensed a shift in attitudes about breaking down barriers for women.
As a student, she found help from other women who had faced similar struggles. “It was through their support and encouragement that I was able to overcome these challenges and ultimately finish my PhD.” She says that it was this experience that taught her to value a supportive environment over a prestigious one.
No matter your gender, there’s one challenge in mathematics that will never go away. But don’t worry, it’s a good one: there will never be an end to discovery in mathematics.
When she was a kid, Shive loved how consistent and concrete math seemed. “Adding two to four always gave me six, and it didn’t matter whether I was adding two apples to four apples or two horses to four horses.” But, as her studies advanced, she says she was surprised to learn that math can be incredibly abstract and nuanced, and that it was unlikely she would have all her math questions answered in her lifetime.
Who Creates the Tools That Create the Future? (Applications Analyst and Full Stack Developer)
You’ve probably heard the expression “necessity is the mother of invention.” Humans have always created new tools in response to pressing needs. Some archaeologists believe that the first crude hammers were made three million years ago. Our ancestors had a need to strike wood, stone, and animal bones.
Over the eons, we learned to want more complex things. Through human ingenuity, hammers evolved to meet our own evolving needs. Building shelters, shaping sculptures, driving railroad spikes, and carefully splitting rock to discover ancient artifacts, just to name a few.
Modern workplaces use a different kind of tool called “applications.” These are software programs designed to help achieve a particular purpose. Bank employees use applications to manage the flow of money. Hotel clerks use applications to track guest reservations. When a company has a complex need that takes the effort of many workers, they often use applications that help guide the flow of work through efficient steps.
All these applications are designed to be usable. But there are also workers whose job is to help their companies get the most out of these complex tools. Beginning as an Applications Analyst and now working as a Full Stack Developer, Tommy Ly has put these tools to work in both positions here at Pitsco Education.
These two jobs are different. An analyst is more like a power user for existing systems, making choices that expand or improve its capabilities for other users. But a developer uses code to go deep beneath the hood to modify applications – or even create new ones from scratch.
But there are also similarities. Both jobs require technical knowledge, problem-solving, and days spent working in front of a screen. And both also require good communication skills. After all, the end goal of both jobs is to help the end users of a software meet their needs.
“End users don’t always know what an application’s capabilities are, and they don’t always know how to say what they want,” said Ly. One technique Ly uses is to listen carefully to requests and then present the users with options they can choose from. He also has to explain these options in familiar language. Or, in his own words, he has to “be careful not to nerd out too much.”
Ly says this challenge can actually be a learning process that helps him get to know the people on his team better. “It is not always a smooth ride, but I enjoy it.”
When the end user and developer have a mutual understanding of a solution, the developer uses technical skills to bring that solution to life. Usually, this means tweaking something that already exists, but occasionally it means creating something new. Either way, this presents an opportunity for creativity.
Ly sees trends of change in his industry that will likely continue in the future. For one, the end users themselves are being given more and more power to customize their own tools. Major software developers such as Microsoft are creating applications with drag-and-drop customization. Ly says, “You used to have an IT person do it. But now there seems to be a push for the application users themselves to create their own workflows. They can drag and drop their own widget to manage their data.”
Imagine a hammer that could become a framing hammer, a sculptor’s mallet, a railroad spike maul, or a rock pick based on a few inputs from the user.
Does this mean that there will be fewer jobs for analysts and developers in the future? Ly doesn’t think so. “There will be jobs, but they will be different. The future is about streamlining. It might also be more about design, creating something that is catchy and intuitive.”
Choices Before You
It would probably be fun if we could literally travel as tourists into the future. Though, on second thought, it might ruin a few surprises.
Besides, the future isn’t just a time that you will go to. It is also something that you will help create. You will create your personal future in part through choices you make about your career. And through your career, you will help shape the world’s future.
Every career has its own responsibilities, challenges, and rewards. The choice is yours. What role do you want to play?
Check out the following for some STEM-inspired ideas to help kids practice these future career skills:
- Pre-Coding Penguins and Activity Cards
- KUBO Robotics
- Code Cube™
- Smart Buddies™
- Straw Rockets
- T-Bot® Hydraulic Arm
- Arduino Education Science Kit Physics Lab
- TETRIX® PRIME Robotics