Editor's Note: This post is part of HuffPost's Girls in STEM mentorship program. For more information, check out our big news page here.
We hear it too often. Our nation must out-innovate the world to remain internationally competitive. We must increase the number of women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) jobs. We need a plethora of perspective to develop tomorrow's technology.
So how do we accomplish these goals? Inspire, fascinate, and propel the next generation into math and science in school.
I am an engineer and scientist who trains astronauts to go on missions in space. And I got there because key people told me I could, long before I had time to think I couldn't. I have a sister who is four years older than I am, and growing up, she had a natural knack for science. She would bring home high school level science projects and teach the young siblings. It is because of her that I watched lunar eclipses and made styrofoam models of the Solar System.
At school, I had teachers who saw in me not only a keen interest in math and science but also a capability for the arts and communication. I firmly believe that the best engineers often have non-technical skills outside of work. I love to sing and play the guitar, though I doubt you would want to hear me do either! However, neuroscientists know there is a link between music and memory.
As we celebrate teachers this week, I think of my seventh grade speech teacher who gave me the one skill I use everyday: public speaking. If not for Mrs. Sickenius, I wonder if I would have made it this close to my dream of flying in space. The most important detail in my background is that these people told me I could do it. I was never held back, and I was often encouraged. Combined with my dad's lessons in self-confidence, I was destined to contribute to our nation's place in the technological world.
I believe all students can have what I had, and this is the first of many posts I will write to help you - a parent, teacher, sister, brother, or friend - to inspire one person. If we all take on the challenge, imagine how many young ones will continue on the path towards STEM careers.
My first resource I would like to give you is this video from the International Space Station, courtesy of Commander Chris Hadfield, a Canadian astronaut who answered a brilliant question from two high school students in Nova Scotia. As winners of a science contest, these ladies asked Chris, "What happens when you wring out a wet washcloth in space?".
As a scientist, I found this question to be pure genius. I have wondered many things about how materials behave in the unique environment of microgravity and spent the better part of my life studying it. However, I never gave thought to this phenomenon. Let's watch the video and then discuss how you could use it to inspire and fascinate a student to think about scientific principles and material behavior.
When I first used this video to nurture the budding scientist in my eleven year old niece, I asked her to make a hypothesis before we watched it. She thought the water would float around, which made complete sense given what we know about microgravity. As the video progressed, the water did not float but rather stuck to his hands and formed a tube around the washcloth. I used this opportunity to talk to my niece about surface tension and how it's important to think about the environment and the material. Her hypothesis showed she was thinking about what happens without the effects of gravity so I focused on also including material properties. I defined surface tension as the tendency of the surface of the water to contract and the molecules to form cohesive bonds. What research from the Girl Scouts Research Institute tells us is that relating scientific principles to real life is critical in both engaging a student and maintaining her interest. So we also discussed when she may have witnessed surface tension in real life like when some insects walk on water. Surface tension is what allows them to walk even though they are more dense than the water.
It is really easy to use so many of the videos and science resources online to show students how fascinating science can be. My goal with the blogs will be to provide you at least one to two resources and how you can use them to teach a specific principle.
I am thrilled at being able to share something that I love with students, and I truly believe if we each aim to mentor one student, we will see change. Change that we so badly need.
For more mentorship resources, check out our map of science and technology organizations committed to helping girls succeed here.
Follow Mamta Patel Nagaraja on Twitter: www.twitter.com/beyondthecurls