All Hands On Deck: Getting Kids Excited About STEM

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Last spring, 18-year-old Eesha Khare of Saratoga, Calif., developed a super-capacitor that can charge a cell phone in less than 30 seconds. The super-capacitor can be used for other products, too -- maybe even providing a solution for charging electric cars.

Khare, who won $50,000 in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair for her invention, is an inspiration -- and an exception. Most American high school students aren’t leaning toward careers in math or science -- actually, they’re leaning away. A recent report by STEMconnector and My College Options shows that 60 percent of students who begin high school with an interest in science or math lose that interes by graduation. The STEM outlook for college students is worse. In a 2012 report to the President, his Council of Advisors on Science and Technology reported that, while the U.S. will need to add one million STEM workers to the workforce in the next 10 years to stay competitive, “fewer than 40 percent of students who enter college intending to major in a STEM field complete a STEM degree.”

While higher education will need to address reasons kids drop out of math and science majors, professionals in the STEM fields are stepping forward hoping to get younger kids excited enough to stay. But how to do it? One program created to inspire young scientists is Kids Tech University, a lecture series and hands-on workshop for students ages nine to 12 created by Professor Reinhard Laubenbacher at Virginia Tech’s Virginia Bioinformatics Institute. “The goal is to get kids excited about STEM,” he said. “We are not aiming to teach them any particular skills. To get kids excited, you need to introduce them to somebody who is excited already and can convey that excitement.”

The program strives to create a university experience, having children gather in a university lecture hall, then follow up with a hands-on lab or activity. And Laubenbacher said scientists passionate about their field do a great job of conveying the ambiguity of research, which kids like. “KTU excites children by showing them actual research, with all its messiness and all the open questions that nobody knows an answer to," he said. "Kids respond to that tremendously, very different from how they correspond to a science class. School teachers, even the very best ones, cannot do that, since they are not scientists and do not have the same passion for the subject, typically. If somebody shows you how environmental toxins can turn a male frog into a female frog, and how this might be responsible for many cancers of the reproductive system, but how it is not entirely clear yet, that gets kids worked up.”


Another group dependent on the development of careers in STEM fields is the National Security Agency (NSA), which is the largest employer of mathematicians in the U.S. In 1987, the NSA created the Math Education Partnership Program (MEPP) to reach out to students who may be interested in a math or science career. “We need to build the workforce, because the math and tech fields are so important to what we’re doing here,” said Mary Roy, Education Outreach Advocate at the NSA. “STEM careers are where the job growth is for the future.” The MEPP series hopes to capture kids’ interest, and expose them to the broad range of things they can do with math, no matter what careers they choose.

The MEPP Speakers Bureau has developed a series of 45-55 minute interactive talks, meant to take place inside a classroom, to engage students in different facets of math. Roy said one of their most popular talks is a quasi-science experiment, the Skittles Math Guessing Game, in which students try to make educated guesses as to how many Skittles are inside a bag. In the experiment, students are encouraged to estimate and make predictions, then open their bags, count their totals and graph the data.

In addition to the talks (the most popular of which are for ages K-5), MEPP also provides science fair judging as well as a partnership program in which an employee works one-on-one with a school to tutor students in math and science, as well as assist robotics clubs and computer labs.

But will talking -- even when interactive, even when brought by real scientists and mathematicians in the field -- get kids interested enough to choose a STEM career when they get to college? Roy said that although the NSA doesn’t track the students to find out what career path they end up choosing, she is encouraged by the number of requests for talks -- they give 800-1,000 per school year -- and the positive feedback from students and teachers.

Laubenbacher has since moved from Virginia Tech to the University of Connecticut and hopes to begin a branch of KTU there. While he has no official data other than positive survey feedback to claim the program’s success, he said he is at work on several longitudinal studies that will show that a positive STEM experience around ages 9-12 increases the probability that someone will end up in a STEM career.

“Most of the kids attending the program will not become scientists, either because of lack of scientific talent or lack of interest,” he said. “But some of these kids might become president, senator, governor. And all of them will become voters and citizens who have to make more and more decisions that rely on some understanding of science and an appreciation of it.”

It's worth noting that these are just a few of hundreds of different programs across the country meant to get kids excited about STEM.