Redefining STEM

STEM education

I hear about STEM all the time: Science, Technology, Engineering & Math education. As someone who works for a major oil company and also volunteers in the local school system, I feel constantly bombarded by rhetoric about pushing STEM education, particularly for young girls (who society ignorantly thinks are focused entirely on frivolities).

Our elementary and junior high students are the makers of either our future economic prosperity or hardship, so I can understand why so many individuals in both government and industry want STEM education raised as a national priority. But I am a proponent of small government and, still further, I don’t think a laser focus on STEM education will result in the desired outcome. If the desired outcome is a thriving economy, I believe in providing a well-rounded education, allowing for a natural synthesis of science and liberal arts in young minds, and then equipping people to do what they are passionate about.

America was built on creativity, passion, ingenuity and independence. More than forcing children into STEM careers, we should equip them to do what they love. Pushing students into engineering, if that’s not what interests them, is not the secret to building a great economy. They will end up frustrated and burned out, leaving for a different career path or, worse still, staying for the money, becoming a liability to their employer because their driving force is not intrinsic but financial.

Although less than a fifth of high school students report as being interested in STEM careers, I believe the situation is not as dire as some imagine. I have an engineering degree, but I never use anything I learned in school. My day job does not require me to do differential equations or engineering physics calculations. Could I figure out how to solve these complex math problems? Yes. But would I enjoy it? Probably not. Am I still able to do a good job working for a major oil company? Yes.

The girls in my Sunday school class constantly amaze me. This week, we talked about the bible’s most famous set of best friends: David and Jonathan. During craft time, my 1st and 2nd graders decorated large gold stars cut out of construction paper, writing kind notes to their best friends on the stars.

Earlier in the morning, Abigail – a sweet, quiet bookworm in the group – had been telling me about a children’s book she’s writing and illustrating. It’s about a unicorn who was once a fairy. I asked Abigail about her favorite subject in school. I wasn’t surprised at her answer: English. She wrinkled her nose when I told her that I love math and am an engineer. But I’ve seen in Abigail the makings of a brilliant engineer, despite her dislike of math.

While all of the other girls dug through bins of markers and stickers to decorate their stars, Abigail folded in four arms of her star to the center, taping them in place. Then she folded the fifth arm of the star into the center, tucking it into the pocket created by the four other points of the star. On a separate piece of paper, she wrote a note to her friend, which she tucked into her “star pocket”.

When everyone was finished, we hung the golden stars on the blackboard. I smiled to myself, seeing Abigail’s imaginative little “star pocket” standing out among all of the other stars stretched out along the blackboard. I almost took a picture so that I could caption it, “Dare to be different.”

After the other girls saw Abigail’s “star pocket”, they all wanted her to teach them how to make one, too. So I watched petite little Abigail lead the other elementary school girls in making pockets, too. Abigail is a leader, but she’s not a showy leader. She marches to the beat of her own drum. She displays a quiet confidence that draws others to her. The makings of greatness are written into the core of her being, but it’s not the result of a great STEM education. The intangibles that will make Abigail great are the result of natural giftings and great parenting.

Abigail doesn’t like math. She likes English. But she is constantly shining with inventiveness and creativity. And that –more than excellent math skills – is what we need in our future scientists and engineers.

Authentically Aurora

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The Power of Choice

giphyThis week, my company paid for me to attend a Women’s Leadership Development Program for which I was nominated. It was a pretty sweet deal, besides the whole having to spend an entire week trapped in a conference room overflowing with estrogen and “the feels”.

One of our exercises involved differentiating things we Have to do, versus things we Choose to do. So in my workbook, I wrote a few sentences like: “I Have to earn a living; I Choose to work for this particular company,” and “I Have to eat; I Choose to eat nothing but donuts,” which seemed like a good idea at the time, until I realized that I had to share with the group (my statement, not the donuts – thankfully).

After we had gone around the circle and each taken a turn sharing our examples (which you know they wouldn’t do in a Men’s Leadership Program), we spontaneously broke into a rendition of Kumbaya. Just kidding. What actually happened is that our facilitator challenged all of our “Have To” statements.

“Do you have to eat?” she asked us.

“Well, yes,” responded one participant, “Or else we’ll die.”

The facilitator nodded knowingly. “But isn’t that a choice? You can decide whether or not you eat. If you choose not to eat, the consequence would be that you die, but it is still a choice that you make.”

A single mom with a young son had stated that she “Had” to work to support her son, and she pushed back hard on the facilitator’s comment. “Working in order to care for my son isn’t a choice; it’s something I have to do,” she expressed passionately. “It’s not optional. I can’t even imagine not taking care of him. That would go against all of my core values!”

“And the world would be a better place if more people shared those core values, but that doesn’t make it any less of a choice. It is a choice that you make, to care for your son. And one I’m glad you make. But don’t mistake it for something that you have to do. Everything is a choice, and all of our choices have consequences, be they positive or negative.”

The single mother was adamant that it was not a Choice; it was something she Had to do. For the life of her, she could not wrap her pretty little head around the concept of the Power of Choice; realizing that everything we do is based on a decision we make, whether conscious or not.

I was eminently grateful when another, older participant spoke up in defense of the facilitator’s comment. “There are plenty of single moms who make the decision not to work to care for their children. Why do you think we have the Welfare system in this country? I am glad you make the choice that you do, but there are plenty of examples of people who do not make the same choice, and we all, as taxpayers, face the consequences of their actions.”

She went on about the socioeconomic and political implications of more people understanding and embracing the Power of Choice and the concept of taking responsibility for those choices that we make. Sadly, her well-articulated insights were lost on the majority of the women in the room, but I, for one, was grateful to have discovered an insightful, intelligent colleague and kindred spirit.

If only more people had ears to hear the wisdom being shared in that room! It would transform this country – and our world – if more people not only understood but also took ownership of their Power to Choose.

Authentically Aurora