Seeing is Believing: Role Models Inspire Student Achievement

There she was: Miss America, certainly one of the best-known personalities in the United States, if not the world.

Once judged on certain "finishing school" attributes including beauty, congeniality and poise, Miss America 2014 this day was video-chatting with middle school students across the country about her degree in Brain, Behavior and Cognitive Science from the University of Michigan, and her intention to enter medical school when her reign as Miss America is over.

Throw out the stereotypes! Nina Davuluri is a role model, and a great one who helps children see new possibilities for their future. The students she was chatting with were participating in JASON Leaning, a program of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics curricula that reaches some 3 million kids annually.

JASON helps students explore and engage with the STEM subjects, but we know that's only part of the equation. Introducing them to successful people who love their work in these fields, who love learning, and who can share their passions and excitement with others is a vital component in producing America's next generation of scientists and explorers.

Inspiration is hard to come by these days, especially for children who are presented with TV, video games, social media websites and so many other easy distractions that shift their focus away from the things that are truly important. Of course, it's always been hard to get kids to crack the books, and we've had to find ways to make the acquisition of knowledge more interesting. Rote learning does little to excite the mind, stimulate inquiry or promote achievement.

When I began working with JASON Learning in the early 1990's, we were committed to using the best technologies of that time to provide young people with a window on the world. Students would learn through lessons that inspired them to ask questions and gave them the ability to search for their own answers. They would learn through hands-on and inquiry-based activities that are proven approaches to transforming learning.

We developed a system of electronic mentoring using scientists and role models so that students would see science and related subjects as a springboard to a lifetime of discovery and contribution -- and perhaps a career that would never give them a boring day.

The presence of Miss America on monitors in their classrooms was nothing unusual for JASON students. Every week in the curriculum they have the opportunity to meet a new role model -- sometimes via video, sometimes in person -- from NASA or the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, or a university or institute. Always they have the opportunity to ask questions and let their minds explore.

"It was just so fascinating to me," Davuluri said about her own studies in response to a question from a student involved in JASON. "There's so much more that you can do with STEM than people think," she told the students, and they should "really think outside the box in terms of what careers" are available to those who learn STEM subjects.

At a visit to a Whirlpool factory, Davuluri saw the technology and engineering that goes into designing appliances such as refrigerators and washing machines, she told the kids. She also learned about the science that creates personal beauty products as she helped make lip gloss in a laboratory at a cosmetics manufacturer.

Among the questions that the students asked about her own studies was what is a brain like inside, to which Davuluri answered with a laugh, "A very neutral color and it's really slimy."

The reigning Miss America became interested in science when she was in the fifth grade and a wonderful teacher gave her encouragement. Likewise, she had strong encouragement for the JASON Learning participants to be open and inquisitive in their studies.

"Explore every opportunity that you have," Davuluri said.

That's great advice from a fantastic role model, and just the thing to inspire dreams and success. We must continue providing our kids with such fine examples of what their future can hold, because it's everybody's future, too.