“Kids need STEM” is a common news item in your local paper, so here are some notes on getting kids into STEM education. STEM education is increasing in popularity—more schools are incorporating STEM into their curriculum and making it a key part of what they teach. STEM can help students learn to think logically, improve math test scores, and give students career training.
There are many golden stories of STEM prodigies: Taylor Wilson, a 14-year-old who built his own nuclear fusion reactor in his garage in Reno, Nevada, in 2008, making him the youngest person to ever achieve nuclear fusion. The achievement earned him praise and accolades and even a visit with President Barack Obama. Wilson, now 24, works as a researcher exploring ways to make nuclear fusion more efficient. His story inspired Jackson Oswalt, who read about Taylor. Jackson Oswalt was inspired to break Wilson’s record of being the youngest person (12 years old) to build a working nuclear fusion reactor. Clearly, kids are inspired by stories of other kids getting into STEM. But there’s more to the story.
Getting kids into STEM isn’t just about their interest or inspiration. Many kids are STEM-centered, but Low-income students are substantially underrepresented in STEM. Whether it’s high school graduates or postsecondary graduates, reports show that low-income students are entering STEM programs at a much lower rate than their high-income counterparts. Part of the problem is the fact that many low-income families can’t even afford a computer, let alone a good internet package.
The good news is that there are some STEM programs for low-income kids, But the programs don’t apply to everyone. Education for refugee or ‘unaccompanied’ children is an underknown and undersupported area of support. There are some programs out there, like the Foster Teachers of Greece, but that’s an exception not a rule for refugee kids. It’s crucial to address the ‘how’ of getting every child exposed to STEM, since STEM education opens the door to those new career opportunities for students. The number of available jobs in STEM fields is growing each year. However, there are more job openings than there are qualified employees. That means tech companies are looking for students with STEM degrees, and they’re willing to pay them more.
High-paying STEM jobs can be the way out of poverty for students. In the past, students who lived in poverty may have taken jobs in manufacturing or other trades. Many of those jobs are disappearing, leaving workers back in poverty. STEM jobs, on the other hand, are everywhere, and the tech industry shows no signs of slowing down. Even as certain STEM trends come and go, we can expect to see the overall number of jobs in STEM fields increase.
So access is one thing, but inspiration is another. STEM, for all of it’s benefits, isn’t on every parent’s radar. One thing I give Elon Musk credit for – he’s made STEM cool again for all the people who wouldn’t care about STEM otherwise. Doesn’t mean he’s a good person and I have my own issues with the guy, but consider all the attention on STEM that’s happened since SpaceX started. It shows people DO think STEM is important, but it needed some rebranding. Musk and his efforts have gotten many members of the non-STEM-aligned portion of the population to pay attention.
Still, can’t leave STEM in Elon Musk’s, or any other rocket-owning billionaire’s, hands. Musk doesn’t care about STEM kids. Let’s face it, he’s a billionaire and his priority toward STEM kids is “how can I use you to make me rich?” We can and we should do better. How can we – the people who can’t afford to sponsor kids like Taylor Wilson and Jackson Oswalt – do better? How do we help kids get into STEM? It’s like Bon Jovi said, ‘you do what you can.’
How To Get Kids into STEM
Most articles about ‘getting kids into STEM’ recognize the value of 1:1 interaction and encouragement. Spending time. Modeling behavior. I don’t have kids of my own, but I still want to help. So as an author, I made a decision – I could write about anything but I want to do my part. I take inspiration from authors like Micheal Anderson. Like Anderson, I write stories the kids who were like me; smart, poor, no opportunities, and stuck in the mental poverty cycle. It’s not enough to write a STEM story and go “This is about STEM, you should love it!” You actually have to write STEM stories that kids think are cool. How do you do that?
You blow stuff up, of course! I’m not suggesting the second Anarchist Cookbook, obviously. For my first novel, Mesh, I wrote about a technical high school that teaches – along with STEM and regular classes – how to use explosives and pyrotechnics.
And I don’t want to lie to kids, telling them that ‘coding camps’ and hackathons are cool. I love computers, but I’m not a coder. You don’t have to be a coder to succeed in IT. Most IT professionals aren’t coders, and that’s okay!
To communicate that message, I wrote about a VR system where kids put blocks of code together to make programs. Eventually, they’ll figure out that the code they’re writing is part of the supervillain principal’s master plan of world domination, but that’s incidental to the fun of putting apps together like Legos instead of hours at a keyboard.
I’m fully convinced that AI has an important part to play in the future, augmenting human creativity and getting us away from the drudgery of translating what we want to do into arcane languages (I mean, I love the idea of programming but let’s be real; it’s not as fun as playing with Legos.) and I want kids to know that kind of future can exist for them if they want it.
And let’s say you’re a STEM kid but you don’t like coding or explosives? How about robots? I don’t mean another ‘oh cool, you invented a robot arm’ projects, either. What if you attended a school that taught you how to invent and build firefighting robots, rocket-propelled anti-robot guns, or bots that take down active shooters? Building functional robots assumes A TON of knowledge, but that’s the whole point. If you tell a child ‘learn hydraulics,’ they’re going to turn up their nose. But what would happen if you said ‘learn hydraulics so you can build a house-lifting robot arm?’ Do you think they’d pay attention?
The point is, that if you want to get kids into STEM, you have to make it work for kids. Not just silly science experiments – actual projects. Make cool stuff, blow something up, build something crazy!
Champion Your STEM Kids
Beneath those details, it’s important to recognize a truth: All those things are a means to an end. The most important thing you to do to get kids into STEM is to help them understand what their power is. STEM is a powerful tool, and even kids no one knows from a place no one’s ever heard of, can use it to change the world (Srinivasa Ramanujan, for example).
Think about it: One of the downsides of modern superhero movies is how the hero only emerges AFTER they get their powers. Peter Parker and the spider bite. TMNT before the secret ooze. Tony Stark and the Iron Man suit (honestly, could he have built it without Jarvis?). Hiroki from Big Hero 6 and Baymax. Over and over again – modern STEM-related movies say ‘you’re only a hero once some arbitrary event happens to you.’ That’s unfair to STEM kids. When you them together, STEM kids can change the world, but ONLY IF THEY KNOW THEY CAN AND THEY SHOULD.
Another limiting factor for STEM kids is how little nurturing they get, compared to kids in sports. America invested billions of dollars and generations of kids into playing sports. What have we gotten for our money? What if we fostered kids into STEM the way we do for kids sports? What kind of game changer would that be both for the country and humanity at large?
All of these points are why I told a story where those meek, mild STEM kids turn into geek warriors. Recruited into a technical academy the way you recruit kids to play football or basketball, they band together to take down their supersmart supervillain principal. The real message is ‘you don’t need special powers – you’re already powerful, the hero is inside of you.’ Take away the evil genius, Miramar Technical Academy is a powerful model toward building the next generation of titan technology.
And along the way, STEM forces you to develop a strong work ethic. You burn calories with your brain instead of your body in a STEM career. Blue-collar trades are hard work, and so is this – both career paths are important! Whatever a child decides they’re interested in, our job is to say ‘yes you can, and I believe in you!’
Do It For Them – Do It For Us – Do It For You
We’ve got many elder geeks who invested time in showing us how to do this, it falls to us to continue that legacy regardless of our circumstances. Now more than ever, we need to be the people we needed when we were younger.
We can help on a daily basis by keeping those kids in mind. Hear about a free computer? Tell them. Hear about a free STEM camp? Tell them. Internships? Opportunities? Resources? Tell them. Offer to help. “Do you know how to apply for a job? Let me show you.” “Do you know how to write a resume? Let me show you.” You can be that flashlight showing the way to a better future for that child and their entire family.
When it comes to STEM, some of those kids are going to get there regardless. Others are going to be barred at the gate through no fault of their own. We can open those gates in our own ways, enabling and encouraging them to use their innate talent to make the world a better place. It’s the modern version of ‘a society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.’
Thanks for coming to my TED Talk.