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Being Human: The First Step in STEM Education

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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The USA Science & Engineering Festival's Youth Advisory Panel

About nine months ago, I and six other young innovators and visionaries from around the country were asked to be part of an exciting addition to the Advisory Board for the USA Science and Engineering Festival, which took place in Washington D.C. in April. We were honored and frankly a bit overwhelmed to be on a list with nearly a dozen Nobel Laureates, the chief technology officers of Microsoft and Lockheed Martin and the inventor of the Rubik’s Cube.

The idea behind the Youth Advisory Board was to bring together some of the nation’s most energetic young minds — Intel science fair winners, literary geniuses, entrepreneurs, a polar explorer and published scientists — with a simple goal: to promote STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education.

There was just one problem: none of us were actually experts in STEM education. We haven’t done research in the field or been involved in implementing policy. How could we advise an entire festival, with hundreds of thousands of attendees, on these issues? We realized that by chasing our passions in STEM, we have gathered some stories and lessons that we could use to inspire attendees of the festival.

From high school to med school, from the North Pole to the World of Warcraft, these varied experiences echo the same message: engagement in STEM is a human story. It is not the equations but the lived experiences of individuals that make all the difference in the world. So ask yourself, what will be your STEM story? Here are some of ours:

Answers that are 100,000 times smaller than a strand of hair

Omar Abudayyeh, 23: A middle school science teacher once implored me to “always be thirsty” about learning. I reflected on this advice when I decided that I would commit myself to an MD/PhD program that can last for eight years. During my self-reflection, I realized that there would be no other phase in my life where I have free reign to explore nature, learn and understand.

Medicine’s beauty boasts complex art forms, from resilient tardigrades to billions of neuronal connections that we call consciousness, but sometimes it’s hard to appreciate. For our medical board examinations, we are expected to learn thousands of seemingly random symptoms and side effects of drugs. With such a Herculean task, the beauty can disappear. But if you really look through the complicated mess of knowledge, the answer is usually very simple and the beauty can reemerge.

For instance, I remember being confused about why an intestinal disorder, Crohn’s disease, could lead to kidney stones, because the kidney is completely separated from the intestinal tract. We were expected to accept this seemingly anomalous fact and memorize it. But I dug deeper and found that the answer is quite simple. Because absorption is limited in Crohn’s, one stops absorbing fats and those fats pass out in the stool as diarrhea and steal calcium away. Without calcium to bind oxalate (also found in the intestines), the oxalate gets absorbed, travels around in the blood and reaches the kidneys and forms stones. The connection is beautiful! It’s science at the nanoscale, which amplifies to have large implications: big, centimeter-sized stones that are incredibly painful. Sometimes the answer to something so complex is quite simple if you channel your passion to learn and chase that passion down to the scale of 10-9m, which is 100,000 times smaller than a strand of hair.

Learn to fail; it’s ok, the game can always be reset!

Erik Martin, 20: Where others had test-tubes and science fairs in high school, I had a guild to lead in the massively-multiplayer online game, World of Warcraft. Obviously, gaming is not on par with cancer research (unless you’re playing FoldIt!). Yet gaming was the stepping-stone that launched me towards more serious work. I started playing World of Warcraft after a dangerous bout with anorexia nervosa, which led to hospitalization. The disease was brought on by a lack of agency and control in my education, but in Warcraft, I found a community that was the stark opposite ofthe world of traditional schooling. Indeed, from gaming, I learned a great deal about where the gaps are in our system of education.

Games allow us to fail, constantly and relentlessly, in a way that encourages learning, improvement and mastery. The first time you play a game, you will almost certainly fail. Yet this expectation of failure is one we fail to uphold in our society’s most critical endeavor: education. I learned from building games that the nature of innovation itself involves failing – a lot. If you’re not failing, you’re not improving. Gaming provides the kind of social environment that many wish to see in schools – a space which fosters learning by doing, constantly challenges students and allows cooperation towards common goals.

Students should be encouraged to explore, fail and learn resilience to prepare them to tackle the real problems of the world. Games may seem antithetical to this goal, but in truth young people play games (average of 10,000 hours before graduating high school) in part because they feel empowered to face the challenge therein, and that is a noble ideal to replicate beyond the raid halls of Warcraft.

Deadly afraid of math? STEM is still for you!

Adora Svitak, 16: I have a confession: when I was little, I hated subtraction…and addition… and anything that seemed remotely mathematical or science-y. As someone who was, however, passionate about the visual and written arts, it’s no surprise that starry nights and engaging stories piqued my initial interest in STEM. My childhood was spent divided between the refrain “I hate math and science!” and the awe I felt every time I went to a planetarium, or interest with which I devoured articles in Popular Science.

I first realized the power of the intersection of STEM and writing through an early foray into journalism, as a host for a 20-minute video segment for Vice. The segment, called “The Thankless Search for Intelligence Out There…Somewhere,” focused on the work of Jill Tarter (2009 TED Prize winner) and her organization, SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), a respected scientific organization that utilizes mass arrays of radio telescopes in rural Northern California. In journeying to see the telescopes, I discovered an interest in STEM that had perhaps only lain dormant from those days when I went stargazing with my family.

Today, although I’m certainly not a research scientist like so many of my fellow board members, I promote STEM through my writing and public speaking, in particular emphasizing that STEM is relevant whether you’re planning to become an engineer or the next president of the United States. In the future, I hope to be an advocate for STEM through public service and policymaking. That requires me to be an informed student. This year, I chose a school schedule that included everything from global health to computer science and engineering, allowing me to explore several different facets of STEM. It’s certainly a far cry from my childhood days spent trying to escape the scourge of subtraction.

The Importance of Thinking Ahead

Parker Liautaud, 19: When I was 15, I tried to ski to the North Pole and I failed. Erik already mentioned failure and its value for learning lessons. Failure is sometimes necessary and unavoidable, and most often there’s a lesson to be learned that can be applied towards achieving future success. For me, not reaching the North Pole was by far the worst failure of my life. Of the factors that caused this, some were within my control, but many weren’t. One of the most valuable lessons I learned as a young teenager was that getting to the finish line, whether physically or metaphorically, sometimes depends almost entirely on how well we prepared ourselves to respond in times of crisis.

I came back to the Arctic the next year, when I was 16, and reattempted the expedition. The mindset was different because we had been through that initial failure, and we knew we’d have to anticipate that there would be challenges we couldn’t predict until we were experiencing them. The only way to address that is to over-prepare. I remember packing and re-packing my expedition sled blindfolded so that I knew I could find any item, whether a spare glove or a flare, in less than twenty seconds. We reached the pole on April 10, 2011.

Some of these lessons came in handy last year, when I embarked on an expedition to the South Pole which included a significant research component. Challenges varied from arriving in South America and finding out that there was no record of our scientific research permits, to getting sick on the expedition, and some things in between. The reason we made it to the pole was because we anticipated that problems like this would occur and planned for the worst.

Ritankar Das About the Author: Ritankar Das, 19, is the youngest University Medalist (top graduating senior) in UC Berkeley’s recorded history and is currently an MSc candidate in Biomedical Engineering at the University of Oxford. The founder of See Your Future, an education NGO that reaches 75 million people worldwide, Ritankar is authoring a book on education reform. Ritankar has earned over 50 awards totaling more than $500,000 including the Goldwater, Udall, DAAD, Gates and Whitaker awards.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






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