Science Is Life ... The Rest Just Details

03/29/2016 03:00 pm ET Updated Mar 30, 2017

Parents Obsession With Sports Competition
May Close Off More Fruitful Paths for Their Kids

When I arrived at the annual Social Innovation Summit in Silicon Valley, and entered the ballroom, I was stunned. Typically such events are cerebral affairs with abstract ideas floating through the air and ultra serious people sitting with pained expressions, trying to get their minds around serious subjects and imposing concepts. But this event had a distinctly different feel - more energy - more lively expressions - more joy. There were no powerpoints ... no yawns. Instead up on stage a sixteen year old girl held an entire audience of thought leaders and powerful funders - in rapt attention. Her poise, demeanor and enthusiasm painted a vivid picture of how one life can be utterly transformed when parents are willing to take a chance with something different.

Two years ago Hannah Herbst of Baca Roton, Florida, seemed to be just a regular teenager. She, fit in well with her peers. She was a normal girl ... a soccer girl ... a basketball girl. She very well might have been one of those kids wearing one of those T-shirts that read, "Soccer is life ... the rest just details."

But that was all before her father, Joel Herbst, an assistant dean for educational programs at Florida Atlantic University got that crazy idea about enrolling Hannah in engineering camp. When they arrived, she looked around and immediately noticed one thing - there were 40 guys in the room and one girl - her. She turned to her dad, gave him one of those looks and said, "Let's go home. I don't want to be here."

Joel Herbst thought about turning around, but instead he said, "Let's just try this one day and if you don't like it you can go home. When I got home I told my wife that there were forty guys and Hannah in the class and she said, 'Go get her now!'

But something strange happened on day one. Hannah got hooked. Here's how Hannah describes it, "My whole life changed that day. Yes, at first I had no interest in it. But when the counselor put some robots up on the screen and I was like ... wow ... is there a way I could build one of those? With his help I did. I got totally turned on to science and became passionate about building robots, and coding and creating. It was another avenue for my creative side that I'd never been exposed to before."

Soon Hannah was seeing the world around her differently, asking questions about the way things worked that don't usually occur to soccer girls and basketball girls. One day a few months later, while Hannah was out with her family on their boat on the inland waterway she had a bit of an epiphany. Here's what happened in her words, "I had been thinking about energy poverty and my dad and we were out on our boat ... it was actually kind of dangerous. It was during the tidal cycle and our boat started to surge rapidly in the current. My dad was over there trying to control the boat and I was thinking, Look at all this current! It was really fascinating. It all clicked with me a couple of days later... I'm thinking, wait a minute ... energy ... sustainability ... currents ... why is all this energy being wasted ... why not build a turbine robot to harness this energy?

Her dad, saw what had happened from a different perspective - a educator's perspective, "Hannah saw something significant in that event. It was a classic light bulb situation we we yearn for in education ... it was pretty cool."

Suddenly Hannah was in the grip of her inspiration. She told her friends and they all said, "You're a basketball girl ... you're going to make a turbine ... I don't think so." But Hannah was determined, plus she had her dad in her corner. Joel Herbst not only recognized the significance of the idea her daughter had come up with, he also recognized the positive effect it was having on her life. So he said, "Yes ... go go go."

Not only had this turn of events, changed Hannah's thinking, it also shifted her social relationships. On weekends she started hanging out in the community's "Tech garage" which had rapidly become the "in" spot for teens on Friday and Saturday nights. What mades this setting unique and especially attractive from both the kids and the parents standpoint is that there were mentors present - providing them tips and guidance in their various projects. It also added a comfort factor for parents many of whom were engineers.

They now had a way to interact with kids in a setting other than sports competition and learn what did and didn't work in developing relationships. "When I was having a problem with something I would go to my mentor and he would say, "Sure ... try this ... or try that." But he would never tell me exactly what to do. He would point me in a direction and I would take it from there. That's the thing about mentorship, you can never force someone to do something. That's the thing about science ... you give someone something to accomplish and let them go free with it ... and that's what I did ... I went wild."

With the support and guidance from her parents and mentors, Hannah eventually developed a robot that converts the kinetic energy of water ... any moving body of water .. into energy that can be used to create power. It basically provides electricity to anyone who has access to a moving body of water.... which was a pretty significant invention for a sixteen year old soccer and basketball girl.

Soon Hannah had entered the Discover Education 3M "Young Science Challenge" with a first place prize of $25,000. "I was always kind of an oddball kind of kid. On Facebook I wrote I dare to be in the science fair." Her father was thrilled by the changes that had come over his daughter, "During her period of preparation she was not only taught how to build robots, but also taught how do make a presentation ... how to get up in front of a room and speak ... how to do it with grace, and kindness and professionalism. These programs not only encompass science but also the broader rubric of leadership. They help kids to develop their fuller potential."

Hannah worked on it throughout the Spring and Summer and when it came time to compete, compete she did. She won first place in her category and then moved to the next level - the county competition. She won first place there too and now with momentum on her side she extra research ... and her project became more elaborate. She wrote a 50 page research paper and again won first prize. "It was like, I won... I have done it ... I can't believe it."

The next step was the state science fair and this was now the big time with an audience of hundreds cheering on their favorites - just like a basketball game. Hannah basketball and soccer friends were no longer making fun of her because of how obsessed she was. She was in the state championships. "It was probably the best three days of my life ... it was so much fun. It was like a sporting event. It was like the Super Bowl of nerdy kids. We had after parties ... there was a dance party ... in Lakeland Florida. You were with people who were like you. I remember when I was sitting with all the people in the audience across from me. then they called my name five times in a row and the lady says like you won't five special awards ... I was like ... 'I did not' ... I went back to my seat and said this is the best thing ever ... and I'm just sitting there and then they called me again ... I was like ...... I can't believe we won ... we got first place ... I said like you've got to be kidding ... Then they called me up on stage for the best in fair award and that was like the best thing ever in my whole life. It was awesome ... I have nothing left to live for ... I'm good for life.

Stepping back from Hannah's jubilation at winning Discover Education 3M's Young Science Challenge, there is something more important at work here. The world has huge problems and so much of a young person's life today is spent on the sports field where they're competing for something that, in the larger scheme of things, really doesn't matter much. What if all across the map, young people really did have an after school alternative to their sports activities? What if they had coaches and mentors who were guiding them towards solutions to real world problems?

Joel Herbst sees it this way, "As parents, we often try to guide, push or coerce our kids into things that we think they'll be good at without letting them explore the broad range of activities and opportunities that are out there. When I attend a soccer game and I see the parents screaming at the top of their lungs, I say to myself, Gee I wish they would do that for their students in math or science."

But parents who want they kids to explore the broader array of activities are up against all kinds of social pressure that point kids in other directions. Says, Joel, "I'm not painting a broad brush, but I just wish we, as a country, would value, the promise and opportunities that exist in education as much as we do on the athletic field. I see those T-shirts Soccer is life - the rest just details. and I say to myself, "Science ought to be a sport - or leadership ought to be a sport."

In the final analysis the decision to build robots and enter the science competition all was up to Hannah. She had to listen to that still small voice inside that was propelling her forward. In her words, "I just didn't listen to the doubters. I was at that point in my life where I wasn't going to take no's for an answer. This is something that a lot of people face. My athlete friends who were so focused on winning games couldn't see what I saw. I had a vision ... that vision that was completely foreign to them. Steve Jobs had a vision. He made our world new place."

Today, Hannah Herbst might just become the poster child for a new T-shirt ... one that reads, Science is life ... the rest just details.