Science Isn’t Boring. Boring Lessons Are.

The STEM Crisis has a new enemy: Fun. #ProjectLiteracy

Mr. Wizard had the right idea. Image from Tumblr user BroadcastArchive-UMD.

Last fall, the New York Academy of Scientists, together with the United Nations and a veritable who’s who of socially responsible corporations, collectively wrung their hands about the global shortage of science professionals. The STEM crisis may or may not be a myth, but one thing’s for certain: The way science is often taught these days does the field no favors.

“Kids think science is boring,” says Gerald Richards, CEO of 826 National, the beloved writing and tutoring organization for under-resourced youths founded by Dave Eggers. A couple of years ago at a meeting called by the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI), Richards found himself the lone arts representative surrounded by vexed STEM teachers desperate to engage their students. He raised his hand and pointed out what he thought was obvious—the dreary lectures in many STEM classrooms; their intimidating atmosphere—and offered the one thing he knew to be true from his years at 826: “To learn, kids need to get their hands dirty.”

From STEM to Storys “How to be a Superengineer!!!!” handout: “Engineering is like a superpower. It’s what lets you design the tallest buildings—and the vehicles that can leap over them in a single bound. Fortunately, it’s a superpower you don’t have to be born with. You can learn how to do it! Here are the steps every good engineer follows.” Copyright © 2015 by 826 National.

Richards went on to share that some of the organization’s science-inspired writing exercises had proven exhilarating for students—even those who struggled to read and write ended up producing ambitious poems and stories about scientific theories. Still, he wished he could figure out how to take the project a step further, organically entwining hands-on, real-world science lessons with creative storytelling. Tessie Topol, Time Warner Cable’s (TWC) VP of Corporate Social Responsibility, was at the meeting, too, and knew Richards was on to something special.

Together, with the backing of TWC’s Connect a Million Minds program and CGI, the two set out to develop what has since turned into an immersive program and a book of lesson plans for fifth-to-eighth graders called STEM to Story. Aligned with Common Core English Language Arts and Next Generation Science standards, the program immediately saw impressive results, increasing students’ desire to study science—and their confidence that they’d do well in the subject—by 12 and 10 percent respectively.

“Perception is more than half the battle,” says Topol. “When kids assume they won’t be good at science, they never will be.” In step with the current educational trend toward playful learning—which has been proven to foster developmental reading ability and to “stick” much longer than more traditional “drill-and-skill” teaching, particularly for disadvantaged children—STEM to Story doesn’t inform students that they’re about to learn a Very Important Lesson about science or creative writing. Instead, it just gives them something fun to do—say, tossing handfuls of salt and sugar on ice to see what makes it melt faster—then asking them to imagine (hopefully on paper) what the world would be like without salt.

In a handout from STEM to Story’s lesson “The Science of Superpowers,” students learn about DNA by imagining what kind of superpower traits a superhero inherited from his or her parents. Copyright © 2015 by 826 National.

Says Gerald: “We’re not answering questions for the kids. The 826 method is very Socratic. You ask what a world without salt would be like, you get the students to give you answers. Volunteers are there to help and draw it out, but more important is that a caring adult is listening and paying attention to what you’re doing. Paying attention to you. Helping you work through your own imaginative ideas to get to the right answer. Science is all about inquiry, but it’s also about being creative.”

This under-discussed link between creativity, scientific inquiry, and functional literacy has long fascinated Pam Garza, STEM Project Director at YMCA, which thanks to TWC’s donation of 1,000 copies of the STEM to Story book will offer the program to YMCAs around the country, anticipating that they’ll reach nearly 250,000 youths in 44 states. For Garza, STEM education initiatives like STEM to Story aren’t just about getting kids to go on to careers in math and science.

In the opening of STEM to Story, educators are encouraged to let students figure out the answer for themselves. Copyright © 2015 by 826 National.

“From figuring out which dishwasher to buy to how to vote for a new initiative, we need to be just as literate in science as we do in reading and writing,” she says. The goal of a successful education is to produce adults capable of critical thinking—and that’s what scientific inquiry is all about.

Garza says that exposure to scientific inquiry helps cement the skills that take us from mere reading and writing to more well-rounded comprehension that will sustain us into our adult years. “When it comes to science,” she says, “we want young people to be better at observing—then to take those observations of their world and create them in the form of a question, or a hypothesis. Once you’ve defined your question, then how do you plan and investigate to figure out what it is you want to know? And once you plan and investigate, how do you analyze? And once you analyze, how do you communicate your findings using evidence?”

So maybe creative writing and science aren’t the unlikely pairing they might seem at first glance. The process of scientific inquiry is not unlike the process of writing a story (or the process a critical thinker goes through at the ballot box). Richards, Topol, and Garza aren’t the first to emphasize the important of this kind of cross-disciplinary thinking. As Albert Einstein put it, “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. So the unknown, the mysterious, is where art and science meet.”

Both disciplines require a certain level of comfort with the universe’s mysteries. And, according to Richards, so does volunteering at 826, which in addition to holding classes and workshops like STEM to Story, holds drop-in tutoring sessions in underserved urban areas. When he’s on the road, he likes to stop by and tutor a few students, though often, he finds they’re smarter about their subjects than he is. With a little encouragement, they end up telling Richards how to do long division, or persuade him that their thesis statement about single sex education is correct.

“It’s humbling,” Richards says. “We underestimate young people. Tutoring forces you to sit down and listen.”

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The problem with American Sign Language (ASL) is that over 500,000 people in the U.S. use it, but the country has over 330 million people.

So for those with hearing loss, the chances of coming into contact with someone who uses the language are rare. Especially outside of the deaf community.

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Looking back, the year 1995 seems like such an innocent time. America was in the midst of its longest streak of peace and prosperity. September 11, 2001 was six years away, and the internet didn't seem like much more than a passing fad.

Twenty-four years ago, 18 million U.S. homes had modem-equipped computers, 7 million more than the year before. Most logged in through America Online where they got their email or communicated with random strangers in chat rooms.

According to a Pew Research study that year, only 32% of those who go online say they would miss it "a lot" if no longer available.

Imagine what those poll numbers would look like if the question was asked today.

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"Few see online activities as essential to them, and no single online feature, with the exception of E-Mail, is used with any regularity," the Pew article said. "Consumers have yet to begin purchasing goods and services online, and there is little indication that online news features are changing traditional news consumption patterns."

"Late Night" host David Letterman had Microsoft founder and, at that time the richest man in the world, on his show for an interview in '95 to discuss the "the big new thing."

During the interview Letterman chided Gates about the usefulness of the new technology, comparing it to radio and tape recorders.

Gates seems excited by the internet because it will soon allow people to listen to a baseball game on their computer. To which Letterman smugly replies, "Does radio ring a bell?" to laughter from the crowd.

But Gates presses Letterman saying that the new technology allows you to listen to the game "whenever you want," to which Letterman responds, "Do tape recorders ring a bell?"

Gates then tells Letterman he can keep up with the latest in his favorite hobbies such as cigar smoking or race cars through the internet. Letterman shuts him down saying that he reads about his interests in magazines.

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The discussion ends with the two laughing over meeting like-minded people in "troubled loner chat room on the internet."

The clip brings to mind a 1994 segment on "The Today Show" where host Bryant Gumbel and Katie Couric have a similar discussion.

"What is internet anyway?" an exasperated Gumball asks. "What do you write to it like mail?"

"It's a computer billboard but it's nationwide and it's several universities all joined together and it's getting bigger and bigger all the time," a producer explains from off-stage.

Photo by Li-An Lim on Unsplash

The future generations will have to live on this Earth for years to come, and, not surprisingly, they're very concerned about the fate of our planet. We've seen a rise in youth activists, such as Greta Thunberg, who are raising awareness for climate change. A recent survey indicates that those efforts are working, as more and more Americans (especially young Americans) feel concerned about climate change.

A new CBS News poll found that 70% of Americans between 18 and 29 feel climate change is a crisis or a serious problem, while 58% of Americans over the age of 65 share those beliefs. Additionally, younger generations are more likely to feel like it's their personal responsibility to address climate change, as well as think that transitioning to 100% renewable energy is viable. Overall, 25% of Americans feel that climate change is a "crisis," and 35% feel it is a "serious problem." 10% of Americans said they think climate change is a minor problem, and 16% of Americans feel it is not a problem that worries them.

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