By Kelly Schmidt, content manager at United Way of Salt Lake

At the start of school every year, Grace Morrell gives her fifth and sixth graders a survey to fill out.

The South Kearns Elementary science teacher asks them a series of questions about herself and their past science experience, like “if I wasn’t a teacher, what do you think I would be?” and “what do you think science really is?”

The assorted questions are a temperature check for Morrell — a chance for her to not only see where her class’ science knowledge lies, but also to gain some perspective on their lives outside of school. The answers reveal some of the harsh realities her students face.

“When I started here two years ago… They would say ‘Ms. Morrell would be working at McDonald’s’ or ‘she’d be a janitor.’ That was their vision, it’s what they were familiar with, it was all they knew,” she said. “And we’ve been working everyday to change that.”

“It’s powerful to see the shift in mindset (in our students) over the years,” Morrell continued, “from ‘what I can be when I grow up is a McDonald’s burger flipper’ to ‘I can go to college and get scholarships’ to be anything else.”

The same perspective shift is happening with her students when it comes to science. Morrell explained that many of her students — the majority of whom haven’t had much exposure the subject — are not only seeing that science is part of everything on Earth, but that it could be a career path they want to take in the future.

That peaking interest from her students is one of the many reasons she decided to get her Elementary STEM Endorsement — a two-year professional development program through the Utah STEM Action Center for kindergarten through sixth grade teachers aimed at training them in STEM subjects so they can better teach the topics in their classrooms.

Morrell is one of about 20 elementary teacher in Granite School District — and one of two at South Kearns — that is having her Elementary STEM Endorsement paid for by United Way of Salt Lake and Women United. The donor network is focused on giving women and girls in our community opportunities through education, and most recently is turning some of its efforts toward getting more women into tech and STEM fields in Utah, particularly through training teachers in STEM subjects.

“It’s not just Utah, our country fails girls and women in being equal partners in STEM industries and we need to figure out how to level the playing field,” said Michelle Azzaro, vice chair of Women United. “And I think it starts with teachers who are prepared to teach these subjects and help students love math, science, and technology. Teachers create and support that passion in their students, regardless of subject, and I believe that can start so many girls on this path.”

Women hold only about one-fourth of tech jobs in Utah — a sector that is expected to exponentially grow in the coming years in the Beehive State. Studies have shown that girls lose interest in math and science by middle school because they aren’t as encouraged to pursue such professions.

The state’s growing technical industries require talent with a technical skill set created through opportunities in STEM through exposure in the classroom. These STEM careers are not just critical to Utah’s economic competitiveness, but also have the potential to increase financial stability for Utah families due to the sector’s ties to innovation, economic growth, good wages, and productivity.

Developing a love and understanding of STEM subjects in elementary school could help change the current circumstances of many of Morrell’s students and their families, she said. About 80 percent of the 330 students attending South Kearns qualify for free or reduced lunch and nearly 60 percent of students are minorities.

To earn their endorsement, Morrell and the other teachers are taking weekly classes on STEM topics that their students will be learning, such as matter, energy, data, and nature. The classes aren’t necessarily teaching them best teaching practices for these subjects, Morrell explained, but rather giving them more perspective on them so the teachers can better understand the topics to teach them more effectively.

“It’s maddening at times because we’re in the same position our students are often placed in, and learning just like they have to learn,” Morrell said. “But it’s a powerful experience to be in this class, and to take what I’m doing back to my classroom.”

For Kristine Hewitt, who teaches social studies at South Kearns, earning her STEM Endorsement is helping her better coach the school’s Lego League teams. There is so much to be discovered and created through STEM, Hewitt said, and she wants to be as prepared as possible in the areas that can help her students succeed in life.

“You hear a lot that the jobs that these kids are going to be doing are not even invented yet,” Hewitt said, “So these are the skills that they need to be able to have so that they’re employable.”

Although preparing students for their futures motivated her to get her STEM Endorsement, Morrell said it’s nice to have something that comes back to teachers as well and allows them to better themselves professionally.

Opportunities like this are often expensive or out of reach for many teachers, Morrell continued, and having groups like United Way and Women United invest and see the value in bettering teachers is an amazing feeling.

“I feel like, as a teacher, if I want to enable my students to have the best academic instruction possible… they need top-of-the-line education,” she said. “As I further my education, as I learn more, I am able to teach more and do better for (my students). I wanted to do the STEM Endorsement for them, so they can learn more and do better.”