STEM is often thought of as being only for people of a certain aptitude and disposition. Though STEM education has made great strides in recent years and become more interactive, content is still king. Facts and discoveries—such as force = mass x acceleration—are often presented without context or background, and great scientists are placed on tall pedestals that make them hard to relate to. If we only focus on great feats of knowledge discovered by larger-than-life geniuses, we can unfortunately distance young people and discourage them from pursuing STEM.
In short: STEM has a public relations issue. It is often taught in a way that does not inspire young people or hold their interest.
I am often asked how I make the topics seem so interesting when I teach STEM. My only secret apart from my accent—I am British, so I get attention points for the way I speak—is that before I teach anything, I always consider my audience and what possible "hooks" or information tidbits could make the material engaging and relevant. My mantra? Anyone only learns when he or she has an interest in the material being presented. Movies are not only interesting because of their content; it is about the emotions that they invoke. I use history and factoids to provide the same emotional connections to STEM.
Luckily the world of STEM is filled with heroes, villains, intrigue, drama, mystery, risk, tragedy, failure and triumph.
Galvani thought he had discovered that electricity was the secret to life while dissecting wet frogs on metal stands and seeing them come to life. His experiments would lead Mary Shelly to write the book Frankenstein. However, Volta quickly proved it was not life Galvani had found, but rather his combination of metal and salty water had created the world's first battery.
A climatologist once cut down a tree for research. When he counted the rings, he discovered that the tree was 4,400 years old. It was not only the oldest tree in the world, but the oldest living thing ever. The climatologist, heartsick and haunted by his mistake, never cut down another tree as long as he lived.
Two paleontologists in the late 1800s, Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope, were so desperate to out-compete the other that they resorted to bribery, theft and even dynamiting each other's finds. Both scientists were financially and socially ruined by their attempts to disgrace each other, but their contributions to the field of paleontology were massive. The efforts of the two men led to the discovery and description of over 142 new species of dinosaurs, though only 32 are valid today.
While a great scientist, Sir Isaac Newton was also a bit of a bully. When two other scientists, Robert Hooke and Gottfried Leibniz, offered criticism or competed with a claim over the revolutionary ideas of gravity and calculus, Newton pursued personal vendettas against them. These grudges persisted even after Hooke and Leibniz were in their graves, with Newton trashing their reputations and discoveries while elevating his own.
The Greek mathematician Pythagoras was a math genius who thought vegetarianism was the secret to a happy life, but with one caveat: He had a complete aversion to touching or eating beans. Legend has it that after being chased from his house by attackers, he came upon a bean field, where he decided that he would rather die than enter the field. This gave his attackers a chance to catch him and promptly slit his throat.
With just a little research, STEM can be brought to life with any of the hundreds of stories surrounding its luminaries and discoveries. When teaching STEM, consider the story and the background of the content: Who were the people involved? Was the discovery easy or did it take time? What was the world like when the discovery was made? Was the discovery controversial? Make STEM more relatable and interesting by providing background, context and the personalities involved. Telling the stories that surround STEM makes the topics more meaningful and brings them to life.
Research shows that young people who read or heard about scientists' struggles—whether intellectual or personal—scored higher grades than young people who heard only about their achievements. Science naturally involves failure. Hearing the stories of how scientists struggled and persevered creates a sense of connection between the listener and the scientists. The stories can make young people see scientists as individuals, similar to themselves, who overcame obstacles. When they hear only about achievements, they see scientists as separate from themselves or as special people with rare, innate talent.
If we want to educate a future generation of great scientists, we can change the way we talk about great scientists of the past and about STEM in general.
Marvels of Science 50 Fascinating 5-Minute Reads, by Kendall Haven
The Story of Science series, by Joy Hakim
Why was Sir Isaac Newton Suck a Jerk?
Children's Books About Women Scientists
Mad Geniuses: 10 Odd Tales About Famous Scientists
10 Accidental Inventions and the Funny Stories Behind Them
Discovering Electricity - Meet Galvani and Volta
Weird and Wonderful Stories in the History of Science
Stories from the Great Lives of Scientists
Children's Stories of the Great Scientists
Written by Andy the Science Wiz, NAA STEM Specialist, Andy Allan.