When I was in graduate school, I was tasked with introducing a prospective student to the nearby town. He asked about restaurants and I started to talk about my favorite Thai place and a spot for weekend dim sum, but he cut me off. He meant cheap food. Like take-out every day for every meal. When I stared at him, he follow up bluntly, “I can’t boil toast.” That same student went on to a technical PhD program, one that involved high-level math and handling sensitive scientific equipment. But cooking? No way. He had tried it a few times and it had always gone poorly. It wasn’t even worth trying again. He knew he would mess that up.
I find the idea of messing up while cooking a bit odd. Things might go in an unexpected direction, but you just taste it and adjust. Add some salt, add some acid, add some liquid, or let some boil off. Right? But my childhood had bred many of the common skills of cooking right into my comfort zone. I started using an electric mixer when I still had to stand on a chair to reach the table. My grandfather let my cousins and me (ages 4-7) help him grind and stuff sausage from scratch. And when I stepped into science classrooms, those experiences made what could have seemed like intimidating equipment feel familiar. Bunsen burners and centrifuges felt like things I should be able to learn how to use.
But that wasn’t true of everything in the lab. The little, niggly stuff was always a problem. Carefully dropping individual drops on slides and placing cover films made me feel like I had four thumbs. I watched in envy as one of my friends used magnifiers and precision brushes to arrange things with unshaking hands. “When did you learn to do that?” I demanded. She shrugged and smiled, “It’s just like putting on make-up.” Well, yes. I would have had the same look of terror if someone had handed me a bottle of eyeliner (Or is it a brush? A tube?). But the Bunsen burner? My friend wasn’t going anywhere near that thing.
None of us will make it to science class with all the skills we need to use every instrument on the bench or in the field. But we do have a chance to approach them without a doomed-for-failure mentality. Many STEM programs, both formal and informal, want to breed resilience, creative problem solving, and mastery of technical skills. What about all the places where kids already exhibit those as second nature? Resilience learned while mastering video games is still resilience, and technical mastery at painting miniatures is still technical mastery. Helping kids see the places where they have persevered in the past, even in unrelated hobbies, may help to get them through that initial and frustrating moment of failure. And that initial moment of frustration can be powerful.
A few years ago I was at a STEM-education workshop and joined a group of teachers learning how to do an outreach activity to extract DNA and put it in a necklace. When the time came to use the pipette, the teacher behind me started cursing under her breath. I looked back, and she just shook her head and said, “This is why I was never good at science.” She didn’t say that she had a hard time with pipettes; she said she was bad at science. Just like a few unsuccessful attempts at cooking had convinced my colleague that he was destined for a life of take-out, this teacher felt that her struggles with a pipette had disqualified her from an entire field. I imagine that countless kids have felt the same way.
One of my college roommates had also never learned to cook. But unlike my fellow graduate student, she decided that she would tackle it like she would anything else: studying. She purchased an impressive how-to book and shamelessly looked up words like “whisk” and “simmer” in the glossary when she didn’t know what they meant. The transition was not smooth. I once watched her carefully crack an egg only to plop the egg in the sink and the shell in her batter. Her shoulders immediately dropped once she realized what her hands had done. But with time her vocabulary changed. She was no longer bad at cooking; there were skills she hadn’t had the chance to practice yet.
Erector sets and chemistry kits can certainly help kids to feel more familiar with science equipment once they reach the classroom, but there are plenty of other lessons that can help them prepare as well. Whether in the kitchen, at the vanity, in the craft room, or in the garage, the chance to learn and practice skills from people who are comfortable with them can instill resilience that may help kids face unfamiliar challenges later on. My grandfather never could have tutored me in physics, but learning how to problem solve with a meat grinder made other problems a little less intimidating. Even as adults, we can catch ourselves when we are inclined to say we are “bad” at something. For me, I will try to remember that I am not “bad” at using our terrifying new stove-top pressure cooker. It just an instrument that I haven’t have the chance to practice with yet.