For budding Scientistas, there are plenty of opportunities to explore the different areas of science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) during high school. While high school may not give you as much exposure to more specialized fields, it’s often a great place to get started. For example, taking Honors and AP courses in STEM subjects can often give you a better understanding of those subjects and could help you out in college by allowing you to receive credit for or place out of introductory courses. However, the best way by far to jumpstart a STEM career is through extracurricular activities. The five categories below cover most of the different subjects in STEM and encompass activities that are easily accessible to U.S. high school students.
Science Fairs – This is one of the most versatile opportunities on the list, as science fair projects can be from any area of STEM, ranging from solving unanswered math problems to building a robot to testing substances on animals. Many schools’ science fairs feed into regional and state science fairs that eventually lead to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. However, even for schools that have their own unaffiliated science fairs, the rules tend to be very similar for pre-college science research. Project categories can range from animal sciences to mathematical sciences to even systems software. Students can pursue research on their own, or with the help of a research mentor (typically a graduate student at a local university). Sometimes the best way to find these research mentors is to send cold emails about what you’re interested in and what relevant coursework or past projects you’ve completed. Science Buddies, a group that provides help and ideas for these projects, has two excellent references on finding a mentor and tips on competing at top science fair competitions.
- Internships – As with most professions, STEM internships can help you gain exposure to more specialized subjects that are often not taught in school. For high school students, there are two ways of finding internships – either through a formal internship program or by sending cold emails to companies or individuals you’d like to intern for. Typically, internships tend to consist of collaborating on research that your mentor has been working on, or if it is a program for high school students (such as the Science and Engineering Apprentice Program), producing your own research under the supervision of your mentor. If you’re more interested in coding, you may be able to work at a local technology company or startup, and if you’re more interested in project-based coding, try contacting some local nonprofits to see if they could use a website revamp or if they want to create a mobile application that you could spearhead. For students who are interested in medicine, shadowing a doctor could provide valuable insight to determine whether you are sure if a career in medicine is for you.
After-School Clubs – Most likely, there are other students in your high school or in your region that are interested in STEM, and a great way to cultivate interest as a group is to host a club after school related to one area of STEM. While some clubs are focused on exploring the subject and learning more, others tend to focus on preparing for a specific competition or test. Some competitions that are popular among high school students are FIRST Robotics, the American Mathematic Competitions (AMC), or any of the “Olympiads” – Science, Biology, Chemistry, Physics, and Math are just a few of the competitions offered up to the international level. If you rather learn in a casual environment than compete, there are plenty of options for clubs that you can create in your school – for students interested in computer science, Girls Who Code clubs and Google’s CS First clubs provide easy-to-use enrichment materials in various themes.
- Volunteering with Younger Students – Helping younger students out is an excellent way to combine your community service and your interest in STEM. Within your own community, there are often opportunities with national nonprofits to create a local chapter. Girls Excelling in Math and Science is one example of a program that you could start at a local elementary or middle school – each week the club introduces a different lesson and related hands-on activity. Other student-driven nonprofits focus on increasing accessibility for other demographics – I’m leading a nonprofit called Teens Transforming Technology and like other student-run nonprofits, having more volunteers helps us expand curriculum development and program locations. Some museums and local science centers also have programs for high schoolers to help engage visitors during the summer months –the Boston Museum of Science and the Denver Museum of Nature and Science are just two museums that offer these opportunities. Search in your region to see if similar programs exist.
Summer Programs – Balancing the time commitments of extracurricular activities and an internship during the year can be difficult. An alternative to this is intensive summer programs, which normally cover one specific topic for either part or all of the summer break. The Research Science Institute is one example of a more competitive program – about 50 students are accepted to complete research each year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, free of charge. For rising junior and senior girls interested in coding, Girls Who Code’s Summer Immersion Program provides students with exposure both to programming and to the environment of a technology company, complete with speakers, field trips, and other invaluable opportunities. For a directory of programs available to high school students, Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth has a comprehensive list of activities separated by discipline so students can explore other opportunities that might interest them.
Niharika Vattikonda is a junior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Northern Virginia, where she is focusing on computer science. She was first exposed to coding in middle school through HTML/CSS, studied Java in freshman year, and is now a student at the Girls Who Code Summer Immersion Program in DC. Niharika enjoys STEM outreach and is the founder and CEO of Teens Transforming Technology, a nonprofit that provides access to computer science through workshops and camps for underserved populations, and she is the Events Director for Inspiring Femgineers, another local nonprofit. When she’s not coding or writing, Niharika enjoys participating in Model United nations and writing for her own blog, Teen Thoughts on Politics.