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The UnCollege Blog

How To Study STEM Outside of School

Much has been written about the importance of learning STEM skills at an early age. STEM, the study of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, offers us the ability to hone our analytical and critical faculties while giving us very practical (and profitable!) skills for the contemporary, technology-driven workplace. While our next post will address how to study the humanities outside of school, this post will take a look at the ways in which you can add STEM skills to your resume in an increasingly competitive job market. Learning how to self-study these skills will allow you to continually increase not only your market value as an employee, but also your awareness and understanding of the world around you. A real win-win!

  1. Identify your strengths and desires.

While the ambition would be admirable, the desire to master all of STEM is as unrealistic a goal as the impulse to learn every language or every musical instrument. It's therefore crucial to spend time thinking seriously about why you want to self-study STEM, and what about STEM really attracts you. Think first about your own interests and strengths, then think about what your industry demands. If you’re passionate about the way online media works, maybe it’s time to learn about statistics and the higher-level algorithms that run the web. It’s important to recognize that you won’t get to leap straight into the cool stuff: the beauty (and struggle) of STEM is that the exciting, sexy skills come after you put in a lot of hours learning the fundamentals. Nevertheless, knowing where your natural gifts lay can help make those hours pass a bit more quickly. For instance, are you a visual learner? Maybe product design is right for you. Naturally good at languages? Try coding. Drawn to complex puzzles? Maybe statistics and probabilities are the path for you.

  1. Figure out what your industry needs.

Once you've identified where your STEM interests lie, think about what your chosen industry really needs. Maybe you work in media, and your content management system is sorely out of date: it could be time for you to learn how to code! Or perhaps you're going into non-profit work: wouldn't it be useful to understand mathematical models that might help you more efficiently distribute donations? No matter what industry you're in, there's no doubt that STEM skills could add to your practices. If you're at a loss for what would be useful, try talking to your boss or other leaders in your field. Trust us, they'll have an answer.

  1. Make a game plan, and make it a priority.

As with any self-study attempt, learning STEM skills requires a thought-out game plan. Set aside concrete chunks of time to devote yourself to your self-designed course. Gabe Stern, whose job is to help young adults develop self-directed learning plans at UnCollege, compares this step to going to the gym to exercise. “Signing up for a gym membership doesn’t mean you are going to work out; you need a routine and dedicate the proper time to actually go and execute that routine in order to yield results.”

We recommend an hour a day, at least four days a week; if time is tight, try thirty minutes in the morning and thirty at night. Recognize that you'll only get better if you make your learning a priority.

  1. Find a friend.

Have a friend or co-worker who might be interested in learning C++ with you? Arrange to study together once a week and test each other on your progress. Just like a workout buddy, your STEM study partner will keep you on track as you work together towards your goals.

  1. Make use of MOOCs and Open Courseware.

Here's the bit you've been waiting for: the online resources that can help you get into STEM. Luckily, we live in a golden age for the autodidact. With MOOCs and other online learning programs, it's never been easier to acquire invaluable skills outside of the classroom.

A great place to start is Carnegie Mellon’s STEM Foundations course.

Science: Biochemistry at the Carnegie Mellon Open Course Initiative, Biology courses on Coursera, Chemistry courses on Coursera, Physics courses on Coursera

Best place to start? Introduction to Biology and Introduction to Chemistry at the Carnegie Mellon OCI

Technology: Code Academy, Info, Tech, and Design courses on Coursera, Engineering Courses from MIT Open Courseware, Principles of Computing at the Carnegie Mellon OCI

Best place to start? Code Academy and The University of Michigan’s Technology History on Coursera

Engineering: Engineering courses on Coursera, Engineering courses at MIT Open Courseware

Best place to start? Principles of Engineering on MIT Open Courseware

Math: Math on Coursera, Statistics and Data Analysis on Coursera, Open Courseware from Tufts

Best place to start? Stanford's Introduction to Mathematical Thinking on Coursera

  1. Read books on the subject!

Remember, you're trying to catch up on skills that others will be learning in a classroom. This means that you need to study STEM in different forms: not only through MOOCs, but through studying the existing literature on your chosen topic. There are loads of fascinating books about science, technology, engineering, and math; they can be a great way to help you find your particular niche or interest.Reading a few pages each day will keep you focused on the task at hand, get you excited about the new subject you’re learning, and will give you vital background information on your chosen topic.

  1. Keep a journal about your progress.

This is a tip that will help you whenever you try to learn something new. Write down your progress! At the end of each day, just jot down a few words explaining what you studied that day, where you improved, and what your plan for the next day is. Keeping track of your development is proven to help you retain what you've learned. (Plus, your journal will be a handy refresher when you're preparing for job interviews and eager to name drop some of your new STEM skills.)

  1. Talk to employers about what they want you to know.

Lastly, as you begin to self-study STEM, reach out to employers you'd like to work for with a friendly email asking about where their needs lay. This is especially important if you're hoping to learn STEM so that you can crossover from one job to the next. Connect with workers and HR representatives at companies you admire, and ask if there are any noticeable holes in the talent pool. You can only find out how to fill it if you ask.

For more information on how to become an independent learner, check out our free guide.

About the author: Jennifer is a writer and editor living in New York. She once broke her ankle while traveling alone in Latvia, and survived. Her great loves are literature, linguine, and shelter dogs.

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