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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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