Our future rests with how we educate and inspire our students to become the next generation of innovators solving society's Grand Challenges in technology, healthcare, transportation, energy and sustainability. Innovation is driven by proficiency in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Today's children are wholly unprepared. What's more -- they don't understand how STEM subjects play a role in their world or in their future careers.
By the time they reach middle school, many kids have mastered the basics of the old 3R's (reading, writing and 'rithmatic) -- and they are gaining awareness of their own independence. They start to adopt a perception -- accurate or inaccurate -- of their personal strengths and weaknesses in certain subjects. Middle school is often the tipping point when such perceptions and misconceptions lead children to lose interest in math and science for good. Yet kids can get excited about math and science if they are exposed to real world applications of these subjects.
Middle school also is a time when kids look to adults other than their parents for inspiration. The impression made by an adult teacher, mentor, friend or acquaintance can be indelible and also drive academic choices going forward. A recent survey by Microsoft found that 57 percent of STEM college students were inspired to study STEM subjects because of a teacher or class. That was particularly true for female students.
Middle school is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it produces a defining moment, a great awakening. If a student has a positive experience with a teacher in a science class for example, the student may conclude that he or she is "good" at science. Suddenly, there's a new opportunity out there, a new road to travel and explore. In fact, one in five STEM college students said they decided to pursue a STEM career in middle school or earlier (Microsoft 2011 survey).
Conversely, if a child loses interest in math and science in middle school, the chance of regaining interest and momentum may be slim. For example, a 2009 American Society for Quality poll of young people ages 8-17 found that 24 percent of boys but only 5 percent of girls were interested in an engineering career.
What children and their parents don't understand at the middle school level is that without mastering the fundamentals of math and science, a child will not have the necessary knowledge essential to expand college choices that can lead to rewarding STEM careers. By prematurely concluding that math and science are too hard, simply not interesting, or not important to their future, kids lose out on exciting professional choices that bring with them meaningful economic opportunity.
Interestingly, gender stereotyping plays a role in persuading girls to study the perceived "harder" STEM subjects. A study by the American Association of University Women (AAUW), found that "negative stereotypes about girls' abilities in math can indeed measurably lower girls' test performance." Yet, the AAUW report also found that when test administrators told students that girls and boys are equally capable in math the difference in performance essentially disappeared.
Kids can get excited about math and science if they are exposed to the real world applications of these subjects. Say a student is an avid texter. Let him or her know that that functions on the mobile phone that they're so enamored with wouldn't be possible without applied math and engineering. Let them open the phone up and explore its parts -- hands-on learning at its best. Teachers can better ignite interest in STEM subjects if they are given opportunities to learn how STEM subjects are applied to create exciting products and scientific breakthroughs, possibly in companies in their communities.
No matter what direction kids chose to go with their career, whether working in a bank, building houses, designing microchips or creating cartoons at Disney, they need math and science. The simple truth is that math and science aren't any harder than social studies or history. They take practice and discipline like any other subject. It's a matter of once again making these subjects relevant to children -- especially middle-schoolers.