OPINION: Guest writer

OPINION | JANA JOHNSON: Empowered future

STEM education and next generation

The global population reached 8 billion in 2022, and the United Nations estimates that it will reach almost 10.4 billion by the 2080s. This significant growth has had a compelling impact on the environment, including water pollution, smog, and waste.

While many individuals have made an effort to be environmentally conscious, it's simply not enough. To tackle this global crisis on a grander scale, we need more expert professionals who can create and deploy modern solutions.

Where can these experts be found? With STEM education for students. With a strong foundation in science, technology, engineering, and math starting from early childhood, we can raise a generation of problem-solvers ready to make a difference.

So how can we as educators, parents and counselors prepare the next generation to overcome environmental problems and fill future STEM jobs? First, we must ask ourselves how we can best prepare our students for the future. The answer is simple: by emphasizing STEM education from an early age.

With more than 10.4 million STEM jobs in the U.S. alone and an anticipated increase to 11.5 million by 2032, coming generations must be equipped with the necessary skills to tackle environmental concerns. Fortunately, many of these jobs will be in the environmental sector, playing a crucial role in advancing sustainability efforts and mitigating the impact on our planet.

Today, a wide range of STEM careers within the Department of Energy are dedicated to cleaning water sources, reducing carbon emissions, fighting pollution and finding ways to recycle and reduce waste. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, solar photovoltaic installers, wind turbine technicians, and environmental and conservation scientists are a few of the projected fastest-growing STEM occupations that will directly contribute to environmental efforts.

Students need to be prepared for these important roles. At its core, STEM-related learning guides students to use innovation, creativity, critical thinking and collaboration across multiple fields to overcome challenges. And because STEM has real-world connections, it raises social and environmental awareness among those who are engaged in it.

Study after study shows that exposing students to STEM concepts in early childhood helps them lay a foundation for knowledge that they will build on as they get older. The skills that they develop can be manipulated to provide real-world solutions to problems. Whether that's changing the capabilities of technology or pushing the boundaries of science, STEM teaches students to adapt and overcome.

We can't solve every issue we've caused on Earth before we pass it on to the next generation. However, we can equip them with the tools and knowledge they need to create a cleaner, brighter future for those who come after them.

Every child has the potential to become a future leader and solver of problems, and we must provide them with the necessary preparation.

Jana Johnson teaches biology, physical science and AP environmental science for Arkansas Virtual Academy. She has been in education for 17 years. She earned her bachelor's degree in biology and a master's degree in curriculum and instruction from Arkansas State University. She resides in Jonesboro.