Knowledge Share

When role models are scarce

Lynn Zagzebski Tovar, Abigail Holland Conley & Sylvia Nassar-McMillan October 1, 2013

computerkidAs counselors, we are continually challenged to find relevant, meaningful tools to engage our clients in the counseling process. When our clients are young people being asked to make important decisions about themselves in relation to the world of work, our quest takes on additional complexity. These tools must shed light on the range of interests, values and skills that our clients possess. Our clients also need to relate these tools in a meaningful way to an even wider range of occupations, career paths and academic trajectories. Moreover, from a social justice perspective, our counseling tools and strategies need to take into account the huge impact of contextual factors that either empower or disempower clients in their career decision-making and subsequent actions.

Specifically, when considering science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers, National Science Foundation statistics of advanced degree attainment and workforce composition within these professions underscore the urgency of promoting educational and employment equity in our counseling work. For instance, despite constituting more than half of the U.S. population, women represent only 28 percent of the science and engineering workforce. Moreover, only 5 percent of the science and engineering workforce is Black, and only 6 percent is Hispanic. Taken together, individuals who identify as American Indian/Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander or multiracial account for a scant 2 percent of scientists and engineers in science and engineering occupations. (Source of National Science Foundation diversity statistics: 2010 data available at nsf.gov/statistics/wmpd/2013/digest/.) Contextual factors affecting these statistics include organizational factors and work climate, poverty and underresourced school districts that contribute to poor educational experiences, a lack of diverse, positive role models within these professions, and overt or covert discouragement of science and math aspirations for individuals in these underrepresented groups.

According to the National Science Foundation, careers in science and engineering have, on average, higher salaries and lower unemployment rates than do positions in other fields. Access to these careers is an equity issue that becomes more salient in our current economic climate. Moreover, as we consider our ethical code as members of the American Counseling Association, the mandate to address potential barriers and obstacles that people may face in their career development is critical.

Through our work on a NASA grant that evaluated curriculum materials in grades K-12, we examined educational materials specifically geared toward engaging students from diverse backgrounds. This research revealed some excellent free resources available on the Internet that can be used to address factors that contribute to underrepresentation in specific careers. Our goal with this article is to provide information about these resources, as well as to generate ideas about how these resources can be integrated into career counseling interventions with children and adolescents.

Familiarize oneself with STEM careers
Counselors provide critical access to important career and academic information. Our own perceptions of STEM careers can influence our interactions with students who potentially could go on to become successful STEM professionals depending in part on the messages we send — overtly or covertly — about their ability to succeed in these professions. Because it can be hard to talk about or generate interest in careers that we don’t know much about ourselves, the first three sites listed are geared toward counselors and others who play a role in helping young people with their career decisions. In addition, on the last site, counselors can access a series of radio stories that highlight women who have distinguished themselves as pioneers, researchers and innovators in STEM.

By familiarizing ourselves with the content of such resources and sharing what we learn with our clients, we have the potential to make a difference in the lives of potential future STEM professionals. We can support aptitudes and qualities that others — perhaps even clients themselves — may not have previously acknowledged.

Support development of self-concept and self-efficacy 

At a very early age, individuals start developing a concept of who they are and what they are capable of doing. This development of self-concept and self-efficacy interacts with a developing belief system of what type of people do what type of work on the basis of gender, ethnicity or other aspects of diversity. When making choices about career materials to use with clients, we, as counselors, need to be intentional about looking for the inclusion of diverse role models. In cases in which such diversity does not exist, counselors can talk with students about the people who are and are not portrayed and possible reasons for the existing lack of diversity. Researchers Erica Weisgram and Rebecca Bigler found positive results related to science self-efficacy when, in a career program targeting girls with science aspirations, they incorporated a unit in which discrimination was specifically discussed. The following resources utilize diverse role models and also contain excellent information about STEM careers.

Research shows that self-efficacy, especially math self-efficacy, is significantly related to selection of science-based majors for women and a critical factor in minority retention in STEM college majors. According to psychologist Albert Bandura, there are four domains that impact self-efficacy: vicarious learning, verbal persuasion, emotional arousal and especially personal performance accomplishments. Active learning through precollege programs, projects and competitions that encompass each of these four domains can provide opportunities to integrate a feeling of success and accomplishment into self-concept.

Counselors can collaborate with school professionals to get the word out about precollege summer programs, competitions and other activities that provide exposure to the world of STEM careers. Some of these are highlighted on the Sloan Cornerstone Career Center resource noted below. Local colleges and universities are other likely places for these programs. If there is a cost involved, information about available financial assistance can also be provided. Design Squad Nation provides a link to resources to develop a Time to Invent Club, which could serve as an innovative, fun way to provide hands-on experiences to young people.

Additional strategies include counselors providing novel career development assignments for students, such as asking them to play online games (examples are highlighted on the sites below), and then scheduling follow-up appointments to report on their experiences. For example, at NASA Space Place, a puzzle activity asks the user to move digital tiles around to create an image. To strengthen the relevance between online games and a budding sense of STEM self-efficacy, counselors can help students understand the connection between the world of work and the skills the students are using in online and other activities. For example, a counselor might say, “That activity required strong spatial skills. Those are useful in lots of careers, including engineering.” Or, “It took a lot of communication skills to be able to work together to build this tower. Those are the kinds of skills that are useful when doing project management in various careers.”

By providing observations about required skills and corresponding professions, counselors can provide feedback that is critical to increasing clients’ self-understanding. In turn, this self-understanding can serve to enhance client self-efficacy.

Providing accurate career information

Counselors and their clients continue to have access to the extensive data gathered for the U.S. Department of Labor and contained at O*NET Online. The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook also provides comprehensive information about a wide range of professions. In our work as external evaluators on the NASA project, we also found that NASA and others have developed excellent materials that can be used to help individuals gain accurate information about STEM careers. The Sloan Career Cornerstone Center site has a separate section with descriptions of traditional academic and professional degrees that we believe to be potentially useful, particularly for prospective first-generation college students and their families. In addition, the podcasts and professional profiles provide additional mediums for students to gain accurate career information. NASA eClips are engaging short videos that, in addition to addressing specific learning objectives for grade-level curriculums, provide glimpses into the work of scientists and engineers working at NASA.  

Addressing perceived and actual challenges to career development within STEM

As much as we may work to increase awareness of and interest in STEM professions, organizational barriers, discrimination and other factors still act as obstacles to career development. Online and in-person interest groups can help students find solidarity and engage in collective problem-solving. Many relevant professional associations, such as the ones noted below, offer helpful components such as mentoring and information about precollege programs and professional conferences. Some have junior memberships for precollege individuals seeking early exposure to STEM career information.

n Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers: shpe.org/

n National Society of Black Engineers: nsbe.org

n American Indian Science and Engineering Society: aises.org

n Association for Women in Science: awis.org/

The counseling relationship remains important as counselors assist students in identifying challenges and strengths and in creating persistence plans to help them keep going when obstacles are met. Counselors can also provide empathetic support and resources to clients, especially those who don’t have other family members in science or engineering careers and who need help figuring out how to talk to their families about their career aspirations. In addition, assisted by resources from professional associations such as those listed earlier, as well as counselors’ own professional networks, counselors can help identify individuals whom students can turn to for career information, mentoring and networking.

Conclusion

Online resources such as those highlighted in this article can provide access to accurate career information and, potentially, diverse role models in the STEM professions. Games, competitions and structured programs provide opportunities to create vicarious learning experiences that, with follow-up by counselors, can offer students positive verbal persuasion, emotional arousal and personal accomplishment, thereby serving to increase self-efficacy.

Cautions do exist, however. First, counselors need to be mindful of inequitable access to computers and the Internet at home and at school. Providing clients a computer in session or in the school computer lab can help ensure access to these resources, while also giving counselors an opportunity to explore and discuss clients’ interests with them.

Also, it is not a matter of “if you build it, they will come.” Disengagement from or underuse of a website or activity is probable unless a good choice is made about the resource and integration activity. We highlighted these resources because they are informative, fun and engaging, but other resources certainly exist that may be more tailored to your clients’ particular needs and interests.

Finally, although these Internet sites and activities do offer role modeling for careers where role models may be scarce, they cannot wholly substitute for actual, live role models. It is important for counselors to connect with appropriate individuals from the local or broader community and to help students make connections with them as well. Such individuals, once educated about the need and the critical role they can play, may be willing to forge partnerships with counselors to advocate for the academic and career success of children and adolescents from underrepresented populations.

*This article was supported in part by a grant from the National Aeronautics and Space Association.*

Knowledge Share articles are adapted from sessions presented at American Counseling Association conferences.

Lynn Zagzebski Tovar is a licensed professional counselor associate in North Carolina and a nationally certified counselor. She is pursuing her doctorate in counselor education at North Carolina State University. Contact her at lztovar11@gmail.com.

Abigail Holland Conley is an assistant professor of counselor education at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Sylvia Nassar-McMillan is a professor and program coordinator of counselor education at North Carolina State University.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

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