Making STEM Education Cool

Stephen DeAngelis

August 8, 2014

Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, so-called STEM subjects, are often viewed as difficult and boring. That’s why one of the last people you would expect to see promoting those subjects would be a super rock star. At least I was surprised when Michael Morella reported, “Will.i.am likes robots as much as he likes rapping – maybe even more so. The Grammy Award-winning musician and Black Eyed Peas frontman has supported inventor Dean Kamen’s FIRST Robotics Competitions, inspired underserved students with technology through his i.am.angel Foundation and even had his song ‘Reach for the Stars’ beamed back from Mars by NASA’s Curiosity rover in 2012.” [“Will.i.am: ‘STEM Solves a Lot of Problems’,” U.S. News & World Report, 20 June 2014] It’s great that will.i.am (@iamwill) is supporting STEM education; but, his greatest contribution is not monetary it is the fact that he is helping make STEM subjects cool. Even if a child decides to pursue other academic subjects, knowing that pop culture icons, like will.i.am, are supporters of those who do opt to take those subjects helps remove the historical view of STEM students as people who wear glasses fixed with tape and sport pocket protectors.

 

Will.i.am came from a poor area of Los Angeles not known for its educational system. When Morella asked him why he became interested in STEM education, will.i.am answered:

“One [thing] was a [2010] movie by the name of “Waiting for ‘Superman’” that talks about the education system in America and how poorly it performs. In particular, my neighborhood [in Los Angeles] that I come from was featured in that movie. Superman, a fictitious character, is supposed to solve real problems. STEM, to me, is the solution for schools and neighborhoods like mine.”

What will.i.am likes about STEM education is the fact that those subjects help teach kids how to solve problems (if those subjects are taught correctly). That’s exactly the same reason I’m a supporter of STEM education. As I wrote in a previous post (“Success Starts with Critical Thinking and Problem-solving Skills“), “Our educational system is tasked with preparing the next-generation to succeed in life. That’s a tall order and it will substantially fail if it doesn’t teach children how to think critically and solve problems.” Will.i.am has helped establish programs that teach students problem-solving skills. He told Morella:

“To help solve the problems and the riddles that plague my community and the communities like it … we created this cross-disciplinary, transformative, project-based-learning curriculum that kids do after school. Our kids had a 0.74 GPA – just failing beyond failing – and now they have 3.4s, 4.0s. Four of them are about to go to MIT for a summer program. But they can’t do those things until their grades change. We give them incentives. If you’re living in the hood and you’re surviving, what incentive do you give kids? We say, ‘Let’s get on track to go to college, learn the skill set, so not only are you looking for a job when you get out of college, you can create jobs.’ There are millions of jobs in America around computer science and advanced mathematics that we can’t fill because the skill set’s not in America. STEM solves a lot of problems.”

In an article he wrote with Dean Kamen, will.i.am stated, “We are distressed that American culture celebrates athletes and pop stars because they are cool, exciting and glamorous. No disrespect to my fellow musicians and pro athlete friends, but the sobering reality is that only one in a million, or smaller odds, may make it as a pro athlete or become a world famous musician.” [“Wouldn’t It Be Cool to Get More Kids Excited About STEM?,” Huffington Post The Blog, 23 March 2012] He continued:

“As a nation, everyone should be celebrating kids who are smart, have found their spark and have a thirst for knowledge in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Instead of a one-in-a-million longshot, students who embrace STEM in school have 98 percent odds of making it, and finding a fulfilling and stable career, vs. just a ‘job.’ Every single day, everyone in America uses appliances, products and services that are all STEM-based. When you ride a bicycle, cook with a microwave oven, use a clothes dryer, ride in a car, fly in an airplane, listen to music on a portable player, use a mobile phone or a computer, or receive medical care you should think of scientists, engineers or mathematicians — all very creative people who made these technologies happen. The hard part is, most of these people behind great products and services are anonymous, and not acknowledged and celebrated like pop stars and pro athletes.”

Unfortunately, most parents are not rock stars and probably don’t have high “coolness” factor with their children. So how can parents help make STEM subjects cool? The first thing that will.i.am and Kamen recommend is giving your support to programs that introduce “kids to STEM in an interesting and hands-on way.” I agree totally. One of the reasons that I, along with a few colleagues, founded The Project for STEM Competitiveness, was to help get a project-based, problem-solving approach into schools. Will.i.am and Kamen insist, “Encouraging kids to think big, and to dream without shutting down their ideas and experimentation, is vital.” They discuss a number of available programs that parents should encourage their children to take part in. Stephanie C. Hill (@AccidentalEngr) reports, “Studies show that those with more opportunities to engage in STEM-related activities, such as science fairs, projects and clubs, are more likely to go onto STEM careers and have accomplishments in STEM fields.” [“Making STEM cool,” The Baltimore Sun, 19 August 2013]

 

All of us who are interested in getting students excited about STEM subjects are particularly concerned about getting more girls and minorities involved. Hill writes, “The number of women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers is dismal. As is the number of minorities pursuing STEM careers; consider that African-Americans, Hispanics and American Indians earn just 18 percent of bachelor’s degrees in science and engineering.” One reason for these dismal numbers is the fact that scientists and engineers aren’t perceived as cool. That’s why Hill notes, “We … must be conscious of the ‘image’ issue that still exists today when it comes to math and science.” She continues:

“As a STEM congressional report recently noted, ‘While not easy to quantify, to the extent that math and science are not considered “cool” among image-conscious high school students, inevitably many talented young people will be turned off from pursuing degrees and careers in STEM fields.’ Fortunately, groups such as the Entertainment Industries Council are working to increase the collaboration between STEM experts and the entertainment industry to strengthen how engineers and scientists are portrayed in entertainment media. Hopefully that will help dispel some of the myths that still exist today about engineers, mathematicians and scientists.”

Television programs like “Cosmos” are also helping introduce a wider audience to some of the heroes of science that have made our world a better place. As parents, we can encourage our children to watch these kinds of programs and read books about important figures in science, technology, engineering, and math. Will.i.am and Kamen conclude, “Everyone in America has a role to play in changing the way kids view math and science, and how they answer the age-old question ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?'” So put on your sunglasses, cop an attitude and go help your kids understand that being smart, especially in STEM subjects, is cool.