When America needs to fill the jobs of retiring NASA scientists and others in high-tech fields, it will be forced to turn to today’s college students studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), officials connected to Tennessee STEM Explorers say.
The Birmingham, Alabama-based Explorers serve children throughout the Southeast by collaborating with local television stations to present weekly 30-minute STEM-driven programming.
In Chattanooga, the collaboration is with WDEF and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, where recent shows have been videotaped and hosted by Baylor School ninth grader Aubrey Martell.
“There’s a lot less women who are involved in those jobs,” Martell said before a recent taping. “So doing this show and stuff, it shows those young people just a new perspective of things that they might not have been exposed to very much. And here on the show, we talk about several different things we’ve done. We just came from a show where we were talking about entrepreneurship, and that’s much different than what I’m assuming we’re going to do here today.
“And so it just really shows people just a whole bunch of different ideas and maybe gets them interested in them if they’d never heard about it before.”
At UTC, Martell was joined by Dr. Stephanie Philipp, an assistant professor of education and interim director of the University’s STEM Education Program. For a half-hour, Phillip led Martell through a series of scientific experiments aimed at determining, for example, the density of warm and cold water.
Mike Ousley, executive producer and director of Tennessee STEM Explorers and the head of his own entertainment company, has expanded the program to North Carolina, Alabama, South Carolina and Missouri. Ohio is on a waiting list. His company has turned down Oklahoma, Arizona and Texas because there are not enough resources.
The program is funded by state departments of education and private grants. Alabama works with public television, while the other states partner with commercial broadcast stations.
“We’re here to help kids understand about STEM opportunities and STEM jobs,” Ousley said. “There’s so many STEM jobs available in the future. In 2026, NASA will have lost 54% of its workforce to retirement; so those jobs getting us to Mars, getting us to space exploration, have to be filled by somebody.
“And it needs to be young people to learn about these opportunities. Not just there, but automobiles, technology, aerospace, everything. We need pharmaceuticals. We need young people to go into these careers. There’s lots and lots of job opportunities. So that’s what this show is all about: to open their eyes to job opportunities they might not have thought about,” he said.
Ousley said he will produce 150 shows this year and that each anchor – there are three in Tennessee, including Martell – will receive $5,000 college scholarships.
Martell was a veterinarian for a day in Knoxville and recently visited the Tennessee Aquarium. She also visited a composting factory in Sewanee and ate her first mushroom—on television. What did she think?
“Not much. It’s kind of earthy,” she said.
Unlike many STEM teachers, Philipp worked as an analytical chemist for 10 years before joining UTC in 2019. As a chemist, she mainly worked for small companies that contracted with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Defense, monitoring toxic waste and stormwater plans.
She earned her doctorate “later in life,” in her 40s, and since she and her husband, Dr. Craig Philipp, an assistant professor in the UTC Department of Chemistry and Physics, had three children, she decided on a career change that led her to STEM.
“And that [science] was fun, but teaching was a really good way to do science and have a family. And it actually felt a lot more meaningful to me than a lot of the science I did before that. Because every year, all those [corporate] reports have to be redone, and what you’ve done in the past is just thrown away. And you never think that about teaching. I mean, every lesson you do, you may never teach it again, but it teaches you something about the next time you plan a lesson in that area.”
STEM is a must, she said, if students want to compete for the future’s high-paying jobs.
“Learning about STEM concepts and practices will help students be prepared for the better jobs of tomorrow, which will be largely focused on technology, innovation and problem-solving. Additionally, we need a more diverse group of students participating in STEM learning so that multiple perspectives on how to innovate and problem solve will be heard.”