Earlier this month, as we celebrated our 243rd Independence Day, we are grateful to live in a democracy founded on the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We challenge you, however, to reflect on the shortcomings of our democracy, especially when it comes to Americans' ability to actively participate in our society and ultimately achieve the renowned American Dream. Do all groups in America have access to the knowledge and skill sets necessary to actively participate in our democracy? Do all citizens have a fair shot at life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness?
We are two siblings and high school students who believe that evidence-based reasoning plays a critical role in maintaining our democracy. We argue that today, the stakes are high when it comes to ensuring that all of us are comfortable in the neighborhood of science. Many crucial decisions to be made regarding the future of our country are grounded in data, environmental issues, health care, innovation, and more. We need voters who are comfortable questioning assumptions, evaluating data, and who see the importance and relevance of evidence-based decision-making in innumerable situations.
What does this have to do with high school students like ourselves? According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there are about 133,000 public and private K-12 schools in the country. There are about 42 million children between the ages of 10 and 19, making up about 13 percent of the population. In short, there are a lot of us. In a few years, teens like us will be important decision-makers when it comes to expressing our priorities through the act of voting. In other words, we need to be ready to put our STEM knowledge to use as we assess current and proposed policies, budgets, and agendas proposed by candidates.
How exactly is interest in science being fostered in teens like us? How are we being taught that we are all part of the scientific culture, broadly speaking, in the 21st century? How are our local communities across the country making sure that lots of us, from all different backgrounds—rich, poor, male, female, Native American, Hispanic, African American, Asian, White, straight, or LGBTQ—feel a sense of belonging in science? Studies and anecdotal evidence from many sources, including the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, show that the lack of a sense of belonging can have far-reaching effects on student performance in STEM classes in school, college and graduate school.
We also need voters who are empowered to participate in their communities and in the economy, and who see the value of STEM knowledge and skills in their jobs. Nationally, STEM workers today earn almost double the average annual salary of non-STEM workers. In Texas, our home state, in which only 83 percent of adults have a high school degree (the second lowest among states in the U.S.), access to quality STEM educational experiences that foster students' sense of belonging represent a powerful investment in the future.
According to the Texas Workforce Commission, the opportunities for people with STEM jobs are huge. For example, an associate's degree could lead to a job as a dental hygienist earning $72,313 a year or as a lab technician earning $38,973 a year. With a bachelor's degree, an app developer can earn $64,862 or a civil engineer, $97,903. In general, nationwide, Hispanics and blacks are underrepresented in STEM fields while Caucasians and Asians are overrepresented; women are underrepresented, and men are overrepresented.
How do we ensure that our democracy ensures equitable access to experiences likely to foster the sense of belonging in STEM arenas? We cannot realistically expect equal economic opportunity across these race and gender groups when it is blatantly clear that members of these groups do not currently have an equal shot at the highest paying jobs.
Although many schools are doing amazing things, we do not believe we can simply depend on schools to do this job. With high school science classrooms acting as "leaky pipelines" in which large numbers of students, especially girls and low-income populations, lose interest and feelings of belonging in the scientific world, how can we make everyone feel they have a voice in science and that their neighborhoods and everyday lives are connected to science or STEM? We believe that one important way is to provide outside of school fun experiences with science.
Three years ago we helped start the Dallas Zoo Teen Science Café (DZTSC). The DZTSC is part of a larger, NSF-funded network (the Teen Science Café Network) that aims to eradicate feelings that science is boring or irrelevant to teens. What we do at the DZTSC is simple yet effective. We hold about half a dozen two-hour events a year in which a local scientist leads an interactive activity on his or her work. The topics vary greatly and include zoology, design thinking, computer programming and more.
The ultimate goal of the DZTSC is to make teens' perception of science more positive so that they will be more likely to pursue it later in life and also be more likely to see science and scientists as being relevant to their own lives. According to data taken from surveys we gave attendees after café events held at the Dallas Zoo, positive perceptions of science among 128 survey respondents increased to approximately 80 percent from 50 percent. Direct interaction with scientists in a relaxed, social setting seems beneficial when it comes to building a sense of belonging.
Here is our suggestion to communities across the nation: let's have lots of community spaces and institutions working to create a wide range of interactive and rich STEM experiences for children and teens. Zoos, aquaria, rec centers, art museums, parks, music halls, bowling alleys and more can all come up with customized, fun, quirky and fascinating STEM-related activities. After all, as teens, we are quite a diverse and gigantic group. It makes sense that it will take diverse contexts and varied experiences to resonate with all of us.
Building a science learning ecosystem that cuts across lots of different community settings could add immense value when it comes to maintaining our democracy. These activities do not have to involve rocket science, and they don't have to be expensive! After all STEM is a something humans have been engaged in since our distant ancestors first engineered the wheel and since they first began observing animal migration patterns to improve their hunting success.
Let's get everyone thinking about STEM in lots of different settings. Let's get everyone to consider the questions, observations, discoveries, and new ideas that could inhabit every single space they visit. Just imagine the flood of STEM-related ideas that could be sparked in the minds of teens who love fashion, jewelry, archery, dance, sports, video games, pizza, you name it!
We, the current high school students of America, are only a few years away from voting. Further down the line, we will join the workforce, and we have a tremendous vested interest in how research, innovation and policy play out to set the stage for our future. We need to make sure that everyone has the ability to pursue science because it is a fundamental keystone to maintaining the democracy we celebrate today.