STEM Beats - July 2011

Two Visions of Summer Camp

July 29, 2011

Two articles with two very different visions of summer camp appeared online on the same day. The first, in The New York Times, tells the story of a camp at Bard College that gives low-income math whizzes a leg up in their math skills before they enter 8th grade. The second, in Good Magazine, laments the fact that the push for year-round school for kids in poverty have replaced the push to give such kids fun and stimulating summer camps that focus arts, crafts, sports and all the other things that have been staples of summer camp for over a century. A camp for academics; a camp for summer fun. Do we have to make a choice?

To some degree, the two stories present apples and oranges. The math camp is for kids who already think math is every bit as fun as, if not more fun than, swimming or pottery. The other camp is for, well, most other kids.

Yet that doesn't mean that there isn't some middle ground. Math camp might not be right for all for even most kids, but could we be better off if many, many more low income kids could take part in summer programs that include some academic enrichment?

Let's face it. The vast majority of children who live in poverty aren't doing math, reading poetry, building campfires or throwing pots during the summer. But they are forgetting much of what they learned over the school year--and much more quickly than middle class kids do.

And so the poor get poorer.

Maybe We Really Are Born Scientists

July 27, 2011


Who among us hasn’t watched a toddler play and exclaimed, “She (or he) is a little scientist!” New research out of MIT and Stanford suggests there’s some truth to the exclamation.

Children in pre-school naturally use the scientific method, the study finds. Researchers gave children special toys “that lit up and played music when [the children] placed certain beads on it.”:

In cases in which the children didn’t know which beads made the toy play, the researchers found that the kids tested each possibility in turn in order to find out—much like the way in which scientists devise their experiments to test individual variables separately.

This doesn’t mean we should look to four and five year olds to create cold fusion. But it might mean that very young children have some innate abilities schools can exploit as they first expose them to science. Some science educators will tell you that schools are doing just the opposite: overwhelming children with material while smothering their inner scientists.

Are we doing enough to nurture children's natural scientific tendencies?


Tags: science

The Costs of the Dropout Crisis

July 26, 2011


This week, NPR is airing a five-part series on the nation’s dropout crisis. NPR’s Claudio Sanchez recently gave a brief preview of the series. Here are some of the more startling data he cites:

  • About a million high school students drop out every year.
  • The data on the dropout crisis are very unreliable, so that number may be higher.
  • Six out of 10 jobs today require 2-4 years of college.
  • Over his or her lifetime, a high school dropout will earn about $200,000 less than a high school graduate, and about $1,000,000 less than a college graduate.
  • The unemployment rate for dropouts is now between 15 and 18 percent.
  • The dropout problem costs taxpayers between $322 and $350 Billion each year in “lost wages, taxable income, health, welfare, incarceration costs.”

The prospects for dropouts are grim, and they aren’t likely to get much better even if the job market loosens up. The costs of the dropout crisis are steep, even in good times.

Sanchez points to a few bright spots. Chicago has created a network of 22 charter schools to dropouts a second chance. Baltimore claims to have cut its truancy and absenteeism rates by half in the past three years. Yet only time will tell whether these efforts put a dent in the problem.

In his series, Sanchez follows the stories of a handful of students at risk of dropping out, putting a human face on an enormous national problem. Find out more here


Angry Birds! Roller Coasters! Harry Potter! Thank You, STEM

July 26, 2011


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. 

Follow Alison Craiglow Hockenberry on Twitter:


Tags: science, technology, engineering, math

The Courage to Fail

July 25, 2011

As a sector, we’ve been much more likely to talk about talking about failing than to actually talk about failure.

What does she mean? Many foundations have embraced the importance of failure in innovation. You should be prepared to fail, but you should “fail fast” to learn from your mistakes and arrive at truly game-changing strategies all the sooner. Failure becomes a critical step in any success worth its salt. But you have to be ready to talk about your failures, she argues—publicize them—to move the whole sector forward. Bernholz believes that many philanthropist still have a very tough time going public with strategies that didn’t work.

Yet now as never before, people are coming together online to share, and learn from, stories of failure. Bernholz points to a number of websites. “Admitting Failure” allows people in the development community to “browse failures,” “search for failures” and “share a failure.” They’ve even launched the “Institute of Brilliant Failures” prize.

She also praises a site called While not about failure per se, the site allows people to share ideas long before they're fully baked. It takes courage to let it all hang out there.

It is, of course, not only philanthropists who should come to value failure. Innovators of just about every stripe have learned to fail, fail fast, learn from failure, and minimize its impact.

There may be at least one place where such fruitful failure is unwelcome: school. Schools attach a deadly stigma to failure, critics charge, prompting kids to look for right answers without ever learning to ask the right questions.

Should schools offer kids a safe place to fail, fail often, and fail productively?