The value of role models and superheroes in STEM

According to the Department of Education, the United States is ranked 29th in math and 22nd in science performance among industrialized nations, and only 16 percent of American high school seniors are proficient in math and interested in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) careers. Despite spending more per capita on education per student than any other country and a world-renowned university system, few students in America are inspired from a young age to pursue these critical fields, a trend that some are hoping to reverse.

On May 9, the Brookings Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence (21CSI) hosted STEM education and future generations of American inventors, technologists, and explorers. Participants included noted inventor and technologist Dean Kamen, founder of FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), NASA Administrator and former astronaut Charlie Bolden, and General John Allen, USMC (Ret.) and co-director of 21CSI. During the discussion, panelists explored how to inspire America’s kids to get involved in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), as well as how to get the country’s schools to better promote STEM in curricular and extracurricular programs.

Getting STEAMD: Science, technology, engineering, arts, math, and design

In a world without the NBA, would American children spend hours a day dribbling a basketball? No, thinks Dean Kamen, who says that while schools fulfill the “supply side of the equation” by teaching math and science, the demand from students is missing. “I don’t think most American kids ever saw the real value, the excitement, the fun of science and tech because we’ve created role models and superheroes elsewhere,” he explained, “but I think the next version of Sputnik is upon us.”

Bolden, quick to note that “art” and “design”—the A and D of what he called STEAMD—are just as important as the more technical elements, added that necessity is the mother of invention: although NASA is on a journey to put a human on Mars, they can’t get there yet because they don’t have the technology. “We need kids to be very conversant and competent in science and math … That’s what allows them to be the dreamers that create the technologies that we know we’re missing.”

And that’s where Kamen’s FIRST program, NASA’s VEX Robotics Competition, and other similar programs currently help to fill the void. They make science and math less abstract subjects and, more importantly, empower a culture that celebrates science and technology the same way that the nation obsesses about the worlds of sport and entertainment. They highlight role models and superheroes—people like NASA’s astronauts. As Kamen explained, they bring context. “What our culture has to bring to the schools is the relevance by which it will be important to kids to do the hard work of learning the science.”

The jobs are there

Universities and industry are fighting over the most talented scientists, engineers, and technologists already out there, but individuals from a young age still need a mission. And industry, too, has a role in writing that narrative and inspiring America’s youth. Using the commercial space industry as an example, Bolden noted that companies like SpaceX, Orbital ATK, and United Launch Alliance will only succeed in the future if they can encourage the study of STEM. In describing the various scientific experiments hosted by the International Space Station, Bolden said it’s now time for commercial space, not NASA, to showcase “a place for all those things to go and for all these astronauts they were going to open up the world for …”

But by the time students are in college, it’s usually too late to pursue more technical subjects without competency in the fundamentals. Bolden encouraged investing in STEM-related courses at the elementary level so that “it feeds into the secondary level, and then into undergraduate studies.” With a degree in a STEM field, Kamen remarked that those kids are assured career flexibility, “What their education gave them was the ability to keep adapting to future technologies because they don’t have a skill set that’s not going to be obsolete very, very soon.”

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The chance that a high school or college athlete will play professionally is miniscule, but the chance to engage early in STEM activities will build the passion and skills that can be leveraged into longer-term studies and careers. And although most STEM practitioners are unlikely to return to the classroom as science or math teachers, they can also serve as role models and superstars for younger generations. One way they can invest their time is through FIRST, Kamen’s STEM-engagement and robotics program for kids worldwide, inspiring innovation, competition, and cooperation. “FIRST is not like a sport,” Kamen argued, “FIRST is the ultimate sport.”

So while schools always seem to come up with the money for sports facilities and to pay the teachers who stay after school as the football or basketball coach, schools rarely prioritize academically oriented competitions, like FIRST, as extracurricular activities. “It’s almost impossible to get them to recognize the math teacher or the science teacher with the same stipend for coaching our [FIRST] team because historically it wasn’t there,” Kamen said. But if the government could make just a small shift in schools’ priorities, perhaps by allowing administrators a small discretionary budget to compensate teachers who lead FIRST teams, host science fairs, or coach debate, it could become a catalyst for STEM education.

Watch full video of the event via C-SPAN