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Program Design, Development, and Quality / Storytellers

STEM Anyone? Everyone?

STEM partnership-STEM logo

STEM isn’t one of my areas of expertise.

As a consultant, I’ve spent time with hundreds of programs. I’m clear that there really are fifth graders who know much more than I do about robotics, coding and engineering design and are better at algebra than I ever will be. I love my time with high school students who are excited about 3-D printers – especially when they make cases for my iPhone. But I really have no idea how this works. I’m probably in the top 10% of folks my age who routinely text, tweet, use Instagram and Pandora and are comfortable with Google Docs, but that’s because of young people who were kind enough to teach me and patient enough to help me.

STEM logoBy all rights, I should be a scientist or engineer or mathematician and great at technology. My grandfather developed the world’s first ground-to-air and intercontinental wireless communication systems, created sound for motion pictures and received the Medal of Honor for technological advances that led to our winning the Second World War. My father was a pioneer in nuclear medicine, a leader in developing cancer screenings and a highly regarded researcher. I loved science as a young child, read Jules Verne and thought being one of the first space explorers was a real possibility.

Apparently genes and dreams aren’t everything.

In high school biology my frog died from my bungled, pithing attempt before open-heart surgery could be performed. Despite mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, which my lab partner strongly recommended, it was too late. So much for the experiment. In chemistry, doubling the chemical formula seemed like a great way to complete a project ahead of schedule. Not a good idea. Bunsen burners caught fire and beakers blew up. Big trouble. By my junior year, I was convinced that geometry would never make a difference in my life. I was fine with that.

Erring on the side of caution, I chose a project for the Science Fair that was only on the margin of hard science – whether motivation affects memory. I designed a maze, bought lots of small white mice, kept a journal documenting their behavior and wrote a report. Done. Or not. I went to the event to support my friends. I won first place. Unfortunately, all the mice escaped. Sixteen high-speed rodents versus 200 students, parents, teachers and the principal. Not a pretty site.

In college, I majored in Political Science, which isn’t really a science.

It’s more like the art of the possible – or impossible depending on your point of view. I did, however, take Intro to Physics in my freshman year at UCLA. Everyone said it was the easiest way to satisfy one of the toughest lower division requirements. Half way through the semester my chances of passing were somewhere between slim and none. Definitely not OK.

I scheduled a meeting with the professor. We never talked about the subject matter. All he cared about was what I was passionate about. At the time, I was one of the top-ranked junior tennis players in the country and told him so. He responded that I was already a physicist and probably knew more than 95% of the students in the class. Really? Then why was I the one failing? Clearly, he had me mixed up with someone else. Or everyone else.

He probed. I listened.

Didn’t I routinely make split second decisions about which angles would have the most impact or which spins would be the most effective? Didn’t I take changing weather conditions into account, or use the wind or sun or shadows to my advantage or adopt different strategies on different court surfaces? Didn’t I insist that the strings on my racket were at the best tension for my game? Yes, yes, yes, yes… And so what? What about my grade? What about the class? Could we talk about physics instead of tennis?

He was talking about physics. I had just never made the connection. The meeting ended with a final question: Did the ball go up or down when I served? Twenty minutes earlier I would have thought he knew nothing about the game. Now I wasn’t so sure. He suggested I tie a string to the face of my racket, have my practice partner walk to toward the other side of the court and see what happened. I agreed, although I was sure it would prove my point and we could move on. Down. Not up. OMG! Try as we might, there was no way the string, or a ball, could cross the net unless it went up before it went down. He was right about this. And so much more.

By making learning real, relevant and meaningful to me, he helped me become a better student and a better tennis player.

He opened my eyes to the reality that STEM is everywhere, in everything. He introduced me to a basic principle of Quantum Physics: When we change the way we look at things, the things we look at change. And, of course, Isaac Newton’s law finally made sense: What goes up really must come down!

A Guide to Developing Science, Technology, Engineering and Math in Expanded Learning Programs will be published this month. I wrote it as part of my work for the California Afterschool Network’s Power of Discovery STEM Initiative. It’s a user-friendly, step-by-step approach to embedding exemplary practices and project-based learning into expanded learning programs in ways that spark students’ interest in these fields and help them acquire the skills and motivation they’ll need to succeed in the 21st Century. If my professor were still alive, I’d send him a thank-you note.

We’re all capable of providing ways for students to see the interconnectedness of the world, experience the thrill of discovery, become critical thinkers, create new knowledge on their own and become lifelong learners. Let’s make Einstein’s belief our own: “Real education is not the learning of facts, it’s training the mind to think.” It’s up to us to do everything we can to ensure that this happens.

Now back to breakfast…Blueberries, yogurt, granola and coffee – and reading Architectural Digest magazine, which by the way, isn’t just about beautiful houses, it’s about engineering design!

Author Profile: @andriaf

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