This post was written by Alison Craiglow Hockenberry, contributing editor at Ashoka Changemakers®, and originally featured on the Huffington Post.
From Angry Birds to roller coasters, from the Harry Potter films to viral YouTube explosions of Diet Coke and Mentos, your summer fun is made possible by science, technology, engineering, and math.
But the STEM subjects, as they're known, are in serious need of a public relations overhaul. Somehow they've gotten a bad rep among students for being "boring." And grown-ups who should know better often think of them as "uncreative." Ludicrous.
People who have studied and work in STEM subjects are responsible for much of our modern amusement, communication, health, and progress. They invent and make the stuff we love. They improve our lives. They do cool stuff. They imagine the future and build it.
Carter Emmart, for example, takes the data collected from the most sophisticated telescopes and turns it into wild visuals that make the audiences at the Hayden Planetarium's space shows feel like they are traveling through space and time. "My job is to translate the difficulty of science into understandable stories," says Emmart, who studied physics and art. His movies whoosh viewers on a breathtaking, heart-pounding journey around a scientifically accurate 3D solar system and across the Milky Way, passing uncountable numbers of stars and galaxies to the edge of time. Can you think of a kid who wouldn't want to be part of that when they grow up?
Isabel Behncke Izquierdo's job is to watch cute bonobo apes play all day. Observing their fun, the primatologist is discovering that these primates, who are humans' closest living relatives, use play to solve problems, bond together, and create a highly tolerant, non-violent society; this fascinating (scientific) study may "hold the secret to human survival."
Everywhere you look, STEM professionals are making our lives better, richer, or just plain more fun. The visual effects folks behind Harry Potter are engineers, mathematicians, and computer programmers, and director James Cameron surely pulled on his college physics when directing the gravity-defying Avatar.
Roller coaster designers need a knowledge of physics and engineering. Angry Birds was put together with the vital help of computer programmers. And the Diet Coke and Mentos guys -- Fritz Grobe, who's always loved Legos and math, and Stephen Voltz, who has been combining wacky science since a very early age -- have turned a backyard stunt into a mini-industry of creative experimentation. Now it's their job to invent fun, new ways of using everyday items and share their enthusiasm for invention with the world.
President Barack Obama is hoping that enthusiasm and creativity in the STEM fields is going to take today's students by storm. The STEM subjects hold great promise to propel our country strongly into the future, but getting kids excited about these subjects is critical.
"Students will launch rockets, construct miniature windmills, and get their hands dirty. They'll have the chance to build and create -- and maybe destroy just a little bit -- to see the promise of being the makers of things, and not just the consumers of things," he said in a 2009 speech announcing partnerships to advance STEM education.
Partnerships will be key. While there are and always will be kids who are born to be scientists, mathematicians, and engineers, others could use a little more help recognizing the connections between class work in these subjects and a rich, rewarding career. They may just need a little inspiration from the people around them, in their communities, who are already making, inventing, and discovering things.
Connecting students with real-life STEM professionals, who can show them how to grow up to become one too, is a great way to get kids jazzed about studying and pursuing these subjects. This terrific video, a winner of a video competition run by the STEM education advocacy group Change the Equation, shows exactly how a community partnership could bring STEM subjects to life for students.
Partnership initiatives to advance STEM education are eligible for up to $150,000 in prizes in the current Partnering for Excellence competition hosted by Ashoka Changemakers®, Carnegie Corporation of New York, and the Opportunity Equation. Entries are welcome until August 3, 2011.
The cool jobs that await kids who study STEM subjects are practically infinite in number and style. And if the job they want doesn't exist, students who follow these fields will have the skills to invent it. That's the fun message.
The more sobering but equally compelling reality is that STEM job creation over the next ten years will outpace non-STEM jobs significantly, growing 17 percent, according to a just-released Commerce Department report, as compared to 9.8 percent. People in STEM fields will earn 26 percent more money on average and be less likely to experience job loss.
But beyond the individual benefits of STEM careers, there's a great benefit for us all. Innovation will keep our country and economy strong for the long haul. Supporting STEM achievement will ensure a future for the United States that honors and carries on our rich, inventive, pioneering heritage.
But kids don't care about that right now. They care about Angry Birds! And roller coasters! And Harry Potter! They thank you, STEM. They really do.
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