The world of STEM and computer science careers has evolved dramatically over the years, now encompassing a broad range of industries and roles that extend way beyond software development and engineering.
Public education around STEM has been slow to catch up, and the students most affected by this shortcoming are — you guessed it — girls and students of color.
But one Denver-based edtech startup aims to change all that.
Launched in 2015, Couragion works with education changemakers to expose students early on to a wide range of STEM career paths and work experiences with the goal of getting more kids of all backgrounds excited about pursuing careers in tech.
Co-founder and CEO Melissa Risteff spent years working in the tech industry, witnessing first-hand the lack of diversity in the field and struggling to not only recruit great tech talent but to recruit more women and minorities.
[...] we’re not giving [students] enough coaching and experiential learning to really help them understand what’s available to them. We’re not giving them the right tools early enough.”
After digging into the data, Risteff and her team discovered that, although the government was spending billions of dollars a year on STEM education, the inclusion metrics were continuing to trend downward.
So, the Couragion team set out to create an inclusive, research-backed STEM education program that could add context to nuanced tech careers and improve students’ awareness and perception of the STEM opportunities available to them. And in a state like Colorado, where students are able to choose which schools they attend — a choice that’s often based on the types of career programs those schools offer — technology like Couragion’s is especially critical to their long-term success.
“In an environment like Colorado that has school choice, we’re asking kids to make sure that they enter into a high school that has the programs and pathways that will support them in whatever career trajectory they want to take,” Risteff said. “Yet, prior to that time period, we’re not giving them enough coaching and experiential learning to really help them understand what’s available to them. We’re not giving them the right tools early enough.”
Couragion’s K-12 programs work to match students with STEM careers that align with their interests and skills by allowing them to explore different online learning experiences that mimic real-life scenarios they might encounter in the workplace. Just as important, students can choose someone from a group of diverse “role models” — actual tech professionals who represent a range of ethnicities and genders — to walk them through various challenges that relate to a particular career.
In the years since launching the program, Couragion has helped schools drive dramatic results. Every single school district that has used its programs has seen improvements in their students’ intentions to pursue a career in tech, and according to Risteff, those metrics continue to improve over time — particularly for female students.
Beyond its technology platform, Couragion also works with educators to help them acquire the skills and knowledge to better prepare their students for potential careers in technology.
“The individuals responsible for coaching our kids, especially those who have been charged with career readiness, often don’t understand what the tech industry jobs are,” Risteff said. “If they have no idea, they’re not going to be able to coach the kids. And if their students don’t understand what those jobs are — and they have not only a lack of awareness but a poor perception of them — then they’re not going to pursue those jobs.”
Through a partnership with local education nonprofit mindSpark, Couragion helped kick off the first cohort of a Masters-level STEM educator certificate program on Jan. 22. Looking ahead, the company hopes to continue expanding its partnerships with educators to drive inclusive and engaging STEM education across the country.