Looking at his high school marks, it's logical to assume that Andrew Koobeer would have gone from Grade 12 to a post-secondary program in science, technology, engineering or mathematics – or STEM, as these fields are known collectively.
But he didn't.
"I didn't have the confidence to do it, even though I was strong in math and science," says Mr. Koobeer. "So I became an auto mechanic and did that for seven years."
Mr. Koobeer eventually went back to school, enrolling in the general arts and science program at Seneca College in Toronto before advancing to the school's Civil Engineering Technology program. Today he works at Powerline Plus, a Toronto-based infrastructure company that provides design, engineering and project management solutions for electrical and street lighting projects.
Mr. Koobeer was lucky – and wise – to realize that his true calling lay in a STEM career. But not everyone is as fortunate. In Canada, less than 20 per cent of adults have a post-secondary certificate, diploma or degree in a STEM field of study – a statistic that suggests many Canadians may be missing out on great career opportunities.
"Math and science can be intimidating subjects," says Dr. Christine Bradaric-Baus, dean of applied science and engineering technology at Seneca College. "However, by using real-life examples that link students to future careers, these STEM subjects are less intimidating and become of greater interest."
Canadians often think of universities when they're considering studies in a STEM field. Yet throughout the country, Canada's colleges and polytechnic institutes are leading the way with programs that range from biotechnology and 3-D animation to finance and petroleum engineering.
What sets colleges apart is their emphasis on applied education and research. Jon Buckley, a graduate of Seneca College's software development program, felt the impact of this applied approach right in his first year.
"In terms of course load, it started off with lots and lots of programming, which really appealed to me because I wanted to get hands-on right away," says Mr. Buckley, who now works for technology company Mozilla as a result of applied research work he did at Seneca.
But while Canada's colleges are engaging students with their applied approach to education, attracting more scholars to STEM programs continues to be a significant challenge. That's why many of the country's colleges have embarked on initiatives designed to increase awareness about the many STEM options and to get young students excited about math and science.
Robert Murad, chair of the school of engineering technologies at St. Clair College in Windsor, Ont., points to some examples of what his school is doing.
"We have chemistry days where high school students tour our labs and do actual experiments, like making ice cream," he says. "Recently we launched a program where Grade 6 students work on projects in our computer lab, and we also host science fairs for grades 6, 7 and 8 students."
This year, St. Clair College is sponsoring 14 high school teams in the region's first robotics competition. This summer, the college is launching a post-secondary prep course in math and English, free of charge to high school graduates.
Waseem Habash, associate vice president of academic operations at St. Clair College, says the prep course is meant to address high school students' lack of confidence in math and English – fundamental courses that are critical to success in any STEM field.
"Our intention is to help students succeed when they hit that first year in post-secondary," he says.
Dr. Bradaric-Baus at Seneca College says it's important to engage kids while they are young. Seneca reaches out to high schools on a regular basis through science fairs, robotics competitions and March break tours of its state-of-the-art laboratories.
"We design highly interactive experiential learning opportunities and experiments that are fun and engaging for future students," says Dr. Bradaric-Baus. "This shows students how math and science can be applied in everyday life and opens their minds to the possibility of pursuing a STEM career."
ACCC is the national and international voice of Canada's publicly funded colleges, institutes and polytechnics, working with industry and social sectors to train 1.5 million learners of all ages and backgrounds at campuses serving over 3,000 urban, rural and remote communities across the country and in 29 countries around the world.