STEM, the 20-plus disciplines that encompass science, technology, engineering and math, is fun, exciting and crucial, but there's a whole generation of young people that may never learn it.
The state of STEM in today's schools is problematic, according to Dr. Erika Ebbel Angle. It's often not taught, or not taught well, and when it is, there is often little interest in it, especially amongst young girls who might be told it's uncool to explore it. That's something Angle, a scientist and entrepreneur herself, is dedicated to changing. It's the reason she founded Science from Scientists (SfS) in 2002. (See A Man, a Mission & an Underwater Flashlight.)
The program sends real, charismatic (and predominantly female) scientists into classrooms to teach engaging lessons around various STEM disciplines. The bi-monthly lessons take place during the school day for everyone, not just those who opt to take them, and are engaging, relevant and hands on. They show students how diverse and exciting STEM can be and offer exposure they wouldn't have otherwise had. (See AT&T Blog: Helping Girls Explore STEM and Nokia's Mine: Let's Improve the 'T' in STEM.)
The program, which is offered in Massachusetts, Minnesota and California, has been well received and successful -- science test scores go up an average of 25% -- but Angle says interest in STEM seems to still be largely stagnant amongst the younger generation. A lot more needs to happen to revitalize STEM in schools, increase exposure and equip a future workforce. (See WiC Poll: Start Young to Improve the Pipeline.)
She caught up with WIC to discuss the state of STEM today, how to get kids -- and girls, in particular -- interested in it, and why it's not just good to expand horizons, but vital for the future workforce and economy to get comfortable with STEM.
Women in Comms: Tell us about your background and how you came up with the idea for Science from Scientists.
Dr. Erika Ebbel Angle: I grew up in the California Bay area and then went off to college at MIT. I have an undergrad degree in chemistry -- majored in chemistry and minored in music -- and got my PhD from Boston University's School of Medicine in biochemistry.
I was a super science nerd and my parents -- who are both immigrants who came here with two pairs of shoes -- were very particular about my participating in volunteer work as a kid. They made a reasonable life for themselves and, from an early age, they stressed community service and giving back. In ninth grade, I volunteered at a local area community center teaching all different subjects to kids whose parents couldn't afford [tutoring]. It's exciting to take a child struggling in an area and open that world for them to help them gain new confidence and suddenly feel empowered to achieve in an area that was previously a struggle. I did that all through high school.
MIT was in a new location for me and I couldn't find a community service project that inspired me. At that point, I asked myself if there was something I could do that was important to me and exciting in an area where I had expertise. A lot of articles were coming out in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and others about how students were losing interest in STEM -- girls in particular -- and how the US was losing its competitive edge. I was very disappointed because science is so exciting and is applicable no matter what career you choose. How could it be kids were not excited? So I decided to start Science from Scientists to address this issue of getting kids excited about STEM and improving their content aptitude.
WiC: Why do you think there is less interest amongst girls, in particular? What can be done to encourage them to explore it?
EA: To be on staff with us, you have to at minimum have an undergrad in STEM and be enrolled in an advanced degree program, and have the right social skills and communication skills. The majority of the staff is female. It is helpful both from the perspective of girls in our classes, but also boys, who say they never realized that girls can be astrophysicists. We stress that the role model component is critical and its important for girls to have great role models and for boys to see it's not unusual for women to be in the positions. We see an interest level change from both. It's a neat part we never really planned for.
On day one, our staff talks extensively about their careers and lives. A lot of them have interests outside of science and families, so [the students] see that the traditional stereotype in the hard science doesn't exist -- you can have other interests and have a normal family life and like sports, music and art. They spend time answering questions the students might have about science and general careers.
WiC: Given how important STEM is to our future economy, why isn't there more curriculum about STEM-related topics in public schools today?
EA: It is very problematic. One of the things we've found here in Massachusetts and in California is, science isn't getting taught. You'd think they are being taught English, history, science and math, but in reality this isn't always the case. There is just no science program until literally seventh or eighth grade. To some extent there is no one to blame. To become a teacher in early middle school, you are a generalist. You teach all the different areas. There is no way a person is comfortable with everything. Maybe you've taken one semester of basic biology, but now you're expected to teach STEM. It's really hard. It is with those requirements that teachers struggle... Science is a Xerox handout from a textbook.
We try to bring it to life by tying the science back to real-world examples, whether in computer, engineering or architecture -- to make it real. The problem is with all the focus on these other tests and with the general discomfort many teachers have with the content, it just doesn't get taught. Then the kids take a test and maybe they fail and it's stressful and they decide they hate science. STEM education is problematic. If it's taught, kids are often taught to memorize things, but memorization alone isn't enough. You have to think critically, assess problems and work in teams. That requires energy and time and content. These things just don't always exist.
Whether or not they become scientists -- we'd love that -- but really what you are trying to do is create a workforce, or frankly individuals with the right sort of skills and values of teamwork, focusing, reading, thinking critically that are functional as members of our society. If we don't teach those skills, what does it mean for the future of our companies?
WiC: Is lack of access to STEM opportunities a function of demographics or socioeconomic status?
EA: My theory has always been that this issue of the STEM challenge is not a socioeconomic one. You see that kids from all walks of life don't choose STEM. It's not just about the financial situation of your background. We find in more affluent communities, teachers still struggle with the same challenges. Parents, many of whom are affluent -- investment bankers or lawyers -- don't always tell kids to go be engineers. In inner cities, parents may not speak the language or [they may work several] jobs or if there are no role models, kids aren't aware. You have the same thing happening, but for very different reasons. You don’t necessarily think about it that way, but we're traditionally told when the kids fill out the SAT or PSAT, they fill out an interest survey of career considerations, and it doesn't matter what area you are from. In affluent areas, kids still don't pick STEM. It's not just an inner city issue. It's a systematic problem.
WiC: What is the biggest thing that needs to be done to improve the pipeline of females in the broader STEM industry -- focus on recruiting, retention or the next generation?
EA: [Females in STEM have] been pretty stagnant, and that's part of the problem. They are really struggling to move the needle. It's why, in our case, we believe you do it at the younger age. By the time you're in high school, if you had a lousy experience in elementary or middle school, you aren’t likely to take more challenging classes and AP classes. If you haven't done that, it's less likely you'll do a career in STEM. So much decision making is when these kids are young, in elementary and middle school. If you can't spark interest or maintain it long enough to get to high school and consider the career and take the right classes, they won't even sign up. Where is the right place to put energy? All across would be nice, but from a student perspective, once a kid becomes a teen, it's a lot more difficult to change predisposed feelings and emotions, especially if they're negative, than when they are younger and more flexible.
WiC: What is your advice to a young girl who may be exploring STEM or is still hesitant to do so?
EA: Before they make any decisions, positive or negative, really make sure they understand what a STEM career is. STEM is in everything. I say that not jokingly, but it's true whether you're an architect or patent lawyer. There are so many STEM fields that are really worth exploring. Make sure you ask lots of questions; make sure you understand what it means to have a STEM degree. It's not just a bench scientist or a doctor. Paired with that, just because you might have a bad experience with one area of STEM doesn't mean you should give up on the whole thing. Just because you didn't like physics doesn't mean you shouldn't do STEM, and it's not just biology or computer science. Don't cut yourself off from it. You may have a different experience later on... We clump everything together when STEM is really 20 different disciplines. Kids don't think that way.
— Sarah Thomas, , Director, Women in Comms