Written by Jeffrey Cabanez, CSU STEM VISTA 2014-15
Here are a few phrases I have heard over the last quarter while working as a VISTA at Cal Poly: “Math is too hard,” “I’m not smart enough to be an engineer,” and “Science is for nerds.” However, they are not coming from college students, these are direct quotes from 4th and 5th grade students. To provide a little context, I took my Mechanical Engineering students to Dana Elementary School for an after school program where we had the children design a zip line with some materials provided to carry a ping pong ball and a wiffle ball down a string of fishing line. When we broke up into smaller groups, my students and I received many of the sayings I stated above. Don’t worry, these sayings changed by the end of the event, and I’ll explain a little bit as to why.
The earlier a child is exposed to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics), the more informed they will be about what STEM is, how rewarding and enjoyable it can be, and, just maybe, they will want to become a STEM professional when they grow up. However, many children do not have the same opportunities than others due to family norms (for example, having the expectation of staying at home after high school and supporting the family), funding in the schools (some schools may not have enough funding to have specific STEM focused classes), teacher’s motivation (teachers may not be interested in STEM), and no outlet to explore STEM. This is why STEM outreach events are so important.
A STEM outreach event is an opportunity for someone to learn more about STEM, what STEM is, and how it affects our everyday world. Some examples of a typical outreach event can include informing prospective college students about the different STEM majors offered at the university level or providing hands-on activities about a specific STEM concept (like my students teaching the 4th and 5th graders about angles, friction, and weight without actually mentioning any of the technical aspects). The later usually works very well with children; I’ve learned the less lecture and more hands-on activities the better. Knowing your audience is vital for creating your message, and different age groups will react to different methods of communication.
STEM is not going away anytime soon; it is everywhere and shapes our everyday experiences. From controlling the temperature and lights in your house with an application from your phone to having wi-fi enabled in cars, STEM will continue to grow. With all of the technological advancements that we have had over the years, STEM will continue to be an ever-changing field with brand new developments and projects to work on. The number of students engaged with STEM at an early age has remained constant. Providing students with a STEM experience early on will help turn them towards Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, thus diversifying the workforce in STEM.
Sounds easy enough right? Unfortunately, it is not as simple as “do this outreach event and become inspired to go into STEM,” but sometimes it ends up working out for the better. By the time the children at Dana Elementary School had finished the zip line activity, the phrases changed from “Engineering sucks” and “Why would I ever want to do this?” to “I want to be an engineer!” A few of the children knew that they already wanted to go into a STEM field, but what surprised me is that it was the children who originally thought engineering was dumb were the ones who changed their opinion with a simple activity. The look on their faces when they were talking about their designs with the larger group proved that they were inspired, even if it was just a little bit. The activity hopefully motivated them to learn just a little more about what engineering and STEM actually entails. Sometimes it takes the first interaction and hurdle for new students to be motivated to at least look into STEM.
This year has given me a newfound appreciation for the STEM outreach efforts that are going on at Cal Poly and different universities. I am by no means an expert in STEM outreach; I have just become an advocate for STEM activities at a young age. If, at the end of the day, I am able to create a ripple effect so that one early interaction will lead to a new student wanting to take Advanced Placement classes and pursue STEM, I’d consider my job to be worth it. Having the impact to change a student’s trajectory for the better is what I hope to happen in the coming years. Even though my blog is very surface level about STEM outreach, it is nevertheless important to consider for everyone’s future.