I came home the other day and found a space station sitting on my living room floor. My wife informed me that our son had spent the day tirelessly working on the future of human achievement by laying the infrastructure to colonize the universe, via Legos. The little guy seems to be an aspiring engineer, but he’s at an advantage in that department because I am an engineer, and that is one of the things he has been exposed to at an early age.

This whole parenting thing has highlighted to me the handicap children face when raised by uneducated albeit well-intentioned parents: the missing exposure. Kids grow up aspiring to do what they know. In the worst-case scenarios, if all they know is unemployment, gangster-lifestyles or drug use, then their ambitions to do the same at some point are virtually unavoidable. The vicious cycle repeats itself.

In that regard, there is a lot of emphasis on reforming curricula presentation at schools. The struggling grades of at-risk kids and districts with a majority of students from under the poverty line have spurred the initiative to standardize curricula, but there’s a problem with that solution.

A child’s education is nonstop

States spend millions of dollars each year to “correct” the poorer demographics by standardizing curricula and attempting to remove cultural bias. The problem is a child’s education is widely viewed in the context of schools and schools alone, when the reality remains that children are educated 24 hours a day (minus sleep, in the context of information exposure), only part of which occurs at school.

Standardizing schools would be a good goal if the problem were with the content of arithmetic, reading, etc. As it is, standardization completely overlooks a child’s potential lack of real-world exposure to career opportunities. Standardization also fails to inspire kids to shoot for what their parents don’t know or don’t understand.

The “at risk” kids I’ve worked with in the past had no idea this stuff even existed in the world, so how are they going to strive to become [insert socially acceptable occupation here] when they don’t know [insert socially acceptable occupation here] exists?

High school is too late for first exposures

For years, I have criticized American high school systems for poorly preparing their students for college. High schools inadequately introduce students to the careers that do exist, so kids then enroll at university by default with no idea of what is out there.

I myself am a somewhat ridiculous example of this issue, as I didn’t know engineering was even a thing until after being bored to death as a business major in my first collegiate semester. After I described my enjoyment of math, physics and building stuff to an advisor, she recommended engineering. I was surprised such a thing existed — it was like someone had told me that screwing off all day was a highly competitive occupation.

Ten years later, I am still mastering this art, but my anecdote serves to point out how easy it can be for a person’s entire life path to turn after correcting the mistake of the slightest underexposure.

But high school can often be too late. Though high schools should still have a semester-length class to give students a heads-up on occupations that exist so that the prospective mechanics, teachers, welders, engineers, psychologists or whatever can have some kind of real-world name put on what it is they enjoy doing, it is too late for the kids who have been marginalized and left behind in terms of basic skill proficiency.

Earlier the better for illuminating careers

I firmly believe there are people in prison right now who, had they been exposed to something like the Space-X rocket launching (and landing) when they were young kids, would have caught the “engineering bug” and been engineers instead of criminals.

In essence, we are the product of the information we have obtained. Whether we obtain this information by our own pursuits or through force-fed means is irrelevant. Subtract that information from a person’s biography, and they wouldn’t be doing what they are doing today. If drug slinging or turning tricks was the only information I had regarding careers, I would probably be slinging drugs or turning tricks (though I would like to think I would be one of the more enterprising and motivated drug lords on the block).

Given that availability of information can have a profound effect on the trajectory of a person’s life, we desperately need to supplement our elementary school educations with the information that affluent families provide their children — i.e. insights into the fascinating and exciting careers that exist. The STEM movement is doing a great job and is headed in the right direction by targeting younger kids, but we need to capture the attention of kids in kindergarten, if not pre-school.