We have a Communication Problem in STEM Education
Shawn Wasserman posted on May 15, 2015 | 11406 views

The Big Communication Problem in STEM

Dr. DeWitt says talking about STEM should be fun, engaging, understandable, and awe-inspiring.

Dr. DeWitt says talking about STEM should be fun, engaging, understandable, and awe-inspiring.

Over 4000 high school students were engaged and excited by the presentations at this year’s Extreme STEM (X-STEM) Symposium.

It was a stark reminder of how dry STEM classrooms can be. Are classrooms pushing people away from STEM?

The Washington, DC, based X-STEM symposium is designed to introduce middle and high school students to leaders in the STEM community. The goal is to inspire these students to become the next generation of STEM leaders.

X-STEM presenters know that when educators talk about STEM, they should make it fun, engaging, understandable and awe-inspiring.

However, this isn’t normally the case. I’m sure you’ve experienced this: you’re at a dinner party and a bright eyed child asks a STEM professional “Tell me what you do?” Soon after a monotone soliloquy the room is asleep and that child is no longer interested in the topic. An opportunity is lost.

Sadly this doesn’t end at the dinner party; it’s on our news, in our classrooms, and in our popular culture.

Dr. Frederic Bertley, senior vice president of science and engineering at the Franklin Institute, explained that you are more likely to know the name of a fictional doctor played by Cuba Gooding Jr. than the name of a great inventor. 

Bertley used Dr. Mark Dean as an example. Dr. Dean is the person responsible for the inventions of the color PC monitor, the first gigahertz chip and 9 of IBM’s original patents. He should be praised, not lost to obscurity. The media needs to talk about STEM and it needs to do it in a captivating way. Imagine if media spent as much time telling the story of physician Sir. Arthur Conan Doyle as they do Sherlock Holmes.

Dr. Tyler DeWitt, Ph.D grad of MIT and YouTube personality shared Bertley’s message. He believes that in a quest for exactness STEM educators create dry content. We have created an ivory tower where only STEM professionals dare enter.

Dr. DeWitt shows how a simple science explanation is becomes a snore-fest.

Dr. DeWitt shows how a simple science explanation becomes a snore-fest.

He showed how scientists can take a simple explanation like: “These viruses can start to make more copies of themselves by slipping their DNA into bacteria.” And turn it into: “This bacteriophage initiates replication by introducing its nucleic acid into bacteria.” Which sentence is more compelling?

“We want science to be unbiased and dispassionate but it doesn’t mean you have to be emotionless when talking about it!” expressed DeWitt. “You want the doctor to explain the science in a language you understand and save the precision for the operation. You shouldn’t talk to non-STEM specialists in a heavy way. Talking about STEM should be fun, engaging, understandable and awe-inspiring!”

In this video, Dr. DeWitt explains the chemistry of sodium.

Examples of Fun, Engaging, Understandable & Inspiring STEM

Josh Wolfe, co-founder of Lux Capital, had a good point. The future is catching up to science fiction.

This shouldn’t be a surprise. Ask most people in STEM and they will name five to six science fiction epics that got them interested in their fields. These entertaining science fiction stories have inspired many fans to invent the future technology that inspired them.

According to Wolfe, “One hundred percent of what you have is based on the past. What will you have in the future? Best way to predict that is to do it.”

Ben Gulak, 22 year old founder of BPG Werks, exemplifies this reality perfectly. He focused on what inspired him, not what was in a dry classroom textbook.

He said, “Science fairs made me the man I am today. I didn’t see these projects as work, I worked on them both days of the weekend. I worked on my projects so much that my actual science marks dropped. I was told I would never go anywhere.”

Gulak eventually did make a name for himself both at MIT and with his inventions - the motored unicycle, the Uno, and tank-like off-road vehicle, the DTV Shredder.

If a Cinderella story like that doesn’t get people interested in STEM, what will?

Demonstration of the DTV Shredder.

Dr. Crystal Dilworth from Caltech, also knows how to get a crowd interested in research. She showed inspiring images of stained brain cells with every color of the rainbow. And her mention of glow-in-the-dark rats doesn’t hurt the cause either.

Dilworth didn’t mention the IUPAC name of nicotine, (S)-3-[1-Methylpyrrolidin-2-yl]pyridine, and she didn’t display the black and white images of a science paper. Who would she impress other than her thesis committee?

The point of X-STEM is to get people excited and into STEM. Dilworth chose phrases like “nicotine can become an addiction after one cigarette” and images of rainbow brains to stir this inspiration. Classrooms could learn a lot from her.

Dr. McLurkin demonstrates that if you want to get kids into STEM, show them some robots.

Dr. McLurkin demonstrates that if you want to get kids into STEM, show them some robots.

If a STEM picture says a thousand words then a demonstration of robots says a million. This was the strategy of Dr. James McLurkin, assistant professor of Computer Science at Rice University and Mr Easton LaChappelle, 19 year old inventor from Mancos, Colorado.

What they lacked in slides they more than made up for in robots and videos. And what kid doesn’t like robots!? The X-STEM students swarmed to see McLurkin operate his hive-minded robots. Then they followed Mr LaChappelle out the door to get a close look at his prosthetic arm that was controlled via brainwaves. It’s now more likely that some of these students will grow up to be robotics engineers. 

In this video McLurkin demonstrates his robots at SolidWorks World 2010.

Mr LaChappelle gives his home made brain wave controlled prosthetic a handshake.

Mr LaChappelle gives his homemade brainwave controlled prosthetic a handshake.

For those future roboticists, LaChappelle advises to “Piece together smaller projects into larger ones. It’s easier to learn in steps. The Internet is a great place to learn electronics and software but I didn’t find a tutorial to do the whole project. Some you have to learn on your own. But I have released my software as open source to help others learn faster.”

Is there a better message than that? LaCappelle essentially gives youth permission to experiment, fail, learn themselves, and offers some extra information to help them along the way. This is how STEM education should be structured, with discovery in mind.

Do you have any other suggestions on how to fix STEM education? Comment below.

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