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Getting Students Excited About STEM: Three Key Lessons

December 23, 2015

Almost everything we see, touch, use and enjoy is in some way built on code. It is frustrating, however, that diversity in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) is hampered by stereotypes omnipresent in our contemporary entertainment, media and culture.

According to recent a Google / Gallup report, “Underscoring the increasing demand for people with computer science skills in the labor market, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates that jobs in computer and mathematical occupations will increase by 18% in the 10 years leading up to 2022, creating more than 1.3 million job openings by 2022.”

How can you help encourage your children, students and their friends to consider STEM education and careers? Having spoken to thousands of students over the years I’ve focused on sharing three key messages in my presentations. I’ve found that these messages resonate with students, and I hope they will resonate with you.

Lesson #1: Hard Problems are Cool!

I tell students that hard problems are frustrating, exhausting, sometimes demoralizing, and the most wonderful problems of all to solve. Not infrequently hard problems can’t be solved – and that’s ok. You learn more from a hard problem not solved than 100 easy problems solved quickly. I tell students to be angry with their teacher if all they get is easy problems. You learn very little from problems that are easy; that’s why their easy – you already know how to do them! And the struggle you experience working on a hard problem, the ache in your brain, that is the feeling you get when you are learning. Embrace that feeling – seek out that feeling!

Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford UniversityStanford Professor Carol Dweck on the Growth Mindset: “Students praised for the process they engaged in – their effort, their strategies, their focus, their perseverance – these kids take on hard tasks and stick with them, even if they make lots of mistakes. They learn more in the long run.”

Actions for parents and educators:

  • Avoid saying “you are so smart!” or “you are so talented!” and of course “how can you be so stupid!” – these are all fixed mindset statements
  • Instead praise hard work (even if the work results in failure), perseverance, and struggling to solve a problem
  • Share and celebrate examples of hard problems – like the recent successful landing of a SpaceX rocket (after several failed attempts)

Lesson #2: Being “Technical” is NOT Genetic

When introduced to a baby you are likely to say, “that baby is so cute!” or “that baby is adorable!” but have you ever said “that baby is so technical!”? Of course not – because it’s absurd. Babies are not born “technical” – being “technical” has nothing to do with genetics, gender, race, ethnicity, age, shoe size, sexual orientation, hair color, or any other attribute.

“Being technical” means being curious, passionate and knowledge-seeking about technology. Anyone can be technical. Anyone with a passion for technology can pursue an education and career in STEM. And while getting exposure to STEM education early is helpful and recommended, it is never too late to start.

I tell students to be mad when they see stereotypes on TV and in the movies, to fight back and to believe that those images do not reflect what is possible, but rather reflect deeply entrenched biases.

Google Intern Sierra Kaplan-NelsonGoogle software engineering intern Sierra Kaplan-Nelson, “The stereotype is that you can’t become a computer scientist unless you were coding in your basement at age 10, or that you created a successful app before you hit your teens. That stereotype isn’t true; even taking my first computer science course as a junior in high school was early compared to most of the people I know who are majoring in computer science at Stanford.”

DSC03720Dublin High School junior Hania Guiagoussou, “Coding is all about creativity, it’s all about problem-solving, it’s all about going on and not giving up. At first people may think coding is hard, I felt that way too at first … now I view knowing how to code as super powers you can use to help others and change the world. I see coding as a way you can express your creativity and your artistic skills. I see coding as another outlet to express yourself.”

Actions for parents and educators:

  • Fight the unconscious bias in TV, media, and in classrooms about who can and can’t be “technical”
  • Call out and celebrate STEM role models who counter the stereotypes; here is a good place to start: Women in STEM Series
  • Learn the basics of coding with your child – there are many ways to start:

Lesson #3: Leave Doors Open

The final message I share with students is to leave doors open so that when you figure out what you really want to do, you’ll be able to do so. That means making thoughtful course selection choices each year in high school, with a view to leave open as many doors as possible. Some students will enter high school knowing exactly what they want to do in life – but most don’t!

According to a US News & World Report article on high school seniors choosing the wrong majors: “’The vast majority of them have no idea what they really want to do when they grow up. Even the ones who claim that they do,’ she says. ‘How can you know? If you’re 16, 17, 18, you know so little of the world.’”

Actions for parents and educators:

  • Approach high school course selections with an eye towards what doors might be closed when making decisions. Considering stopping at two years of a foreign language? What doors will that close? Not pursuing all core math and science offerings? What doors will that close? Taking a class for the easy A? What doors will that close?
  • Look ahead and be aware of college prerequisites when making choices.
  • Help students understand how the choices they make now could help (or hinder) them in the future.

Not all students will find their passion in a STEM field; too many students, however, fail to see themselves in STEM because of deeply entrenched stereotypes. Emphasize these three lessons and you can help change the perception of STEM for this generation.

 

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