The STEM Spiral: How We Can Turn College Admissions Into a Positive Force

Students taking notes in adult education classroom
Students taking notes in adult education classroom

The rise of technology startups in the past 5 years and one of the most prolific investment periods in Silicon Valley history has led to more than just TV sitcoms and "unicorns" - young students in the Bay Area are more focused on studying STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) majors. Through our program at Synocate, we get the chance to interact with some of the brightest students from the Bay Area who are interested in exploring their interests in high school. We will describe how Silicon Valley youth have adapted to the technology boom, how we can adapt positive parts of these changes, and what it means for students applying to college.

The STEM Spiral

In the past 5 years, we have witnessed students and parents approaching us with the explicit goal of studying "software engineering", "artificial intelligence", and even more specific concepts within STEM or computer science. As students in high school get more exposure through the media on the types of engineering and the possibilities they provide, they are more open to trying summer internships, school clubs, and competitions in the field. And they are starting earlier and earlier - 7th and 8th grade is common.

This demand has in turn created a fertile ground for summer STEM programs in the Bay Area like COSMOS that explore concepts in engineering. Many private and publically funded programs bring like-minded students together in the summer and give students hands-on activities. Students get more exposure through these programs, which they have to often apply to. In turn, many are starting companies and applying their knowledge while still in high school. This type of environment is positive because it encourages students to apply what they have learned and turn an academic interest into something tangible. As Richard Branson says, "Screw it, just do it." Instilling an attitude of experimentation at an early age is one of the most important things we can do for our youth.

We believe these same students will be the leaders of tomorrow, and we are lucky to have helped them explore their interests. We've taken a part in developing a community of experts, students, and resources for our students, and our goal is to build these types of communities online and throughout the world.

We see many students who have a "seed" of an interest but do not pursue this interest, usually because they are not in an environment similar to the one described above. How do we help them?

How We Can Replicate This Environment

The Bay Area is a famously stressful environment. But the resources and community it has built has permeated well beyond building technology companies. The exposure to STEM and the media's coverage has exposed middle school and high school students to the possibilities early on.

We can take the positive elements - the public and private summer programs, the high school clubs, the encouragement of parents and teachers, and visible mentors - and replicate it across America.

If done right, we can take the stressful forces of college admissions and apply the same energy to exploring interests over time. This program is our first attempt on a systematic basis to create positive forces in the admissions process. It will need to be refined, like anything else, but it is a first step. Our first attempt will be an online community of mentors and tutors.

Many resources are coming online thanks to programs like Udacity, 2U, and MIT Opencourseware. We have noticed with our students that it is a matter of organizing this content and creating goals for students. This will become an integral part of the online community we are building - mutual encouragement instead of competition in the admissions process.

What It Means

If we look across America, more students studying STEM is a great sign - we are significantly behind other countries in basic proficiency. The students we help are motivated and willing to take risks, and we believe if we can continue to grow this population and inspire more students to explore STEM, we have a chance at reversing the trend in America.

Creating positive online communities will be our first attempt at helping students anywhere discover their interests, find mentors, and build skills