Sitting in the fourth row, proud and beaming at Danielle's (one of my mentees) high school graduation, made me think back to 1987 and what life was like then pre-Facebook, LinkedIn and Tumblr.
As a young student attending the Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C., I wasn't the smartest student in my grade (by far), but I was a people person, a creative type and it was easy overall to make new friends from most of the well formed cliques. I had arrived as one of three students entering the 10th grade and I tried my best to at least appear 'cool' and take on leadership roles where I could. Sidwell was big on making a difference in the world as I was pretty passionate about service. My inner Geek would not officially emerge for several more years. You could say I picked up a lot more smarts OTJ (on the job) and working with a technology company.
I consciously study the paths of women in STEM now and one of my friends Leslie shared that she always felt she stuck out like a sore thumb in high school. Friends would often find her sitting in the corner, reading textbooks for classes she wouldn't have to take until college or studying in lieu of participating in some outdoor games or flirting. A few of her peers called her "weird" and a "geek," simply because she chose to learn instead of party or sneaking out of class.
She gracefully deflected all peer pressure, kept studying and is now is a huge success at a well respected company. I wonder about students who may have been just as smart and potentially as motivated as Leslie but fell by the wayside? Felt bad, or worse felt bullied by their study habits and interests.
We all can acknowledge that "Geeks" are becoming rock stars in the technology industry, and it seems as though our plugged-in, information-driven culture is starting to turn the tide. Yes ladies and gentlemen, Geek is becoming chic!
Peer pressure will never disappear, but for young people today, being "geeky" and smart is hopefully much more supported in our schools, by our peers and in higher education institutions. Mainstream culture is littered with current examples, even past the prevalence of video games and internet culture. From Wired online (with an average of 76,271,080 page views each month), to the popularity of icons like Neil deGrasse Tyson (1.2 million followers), to vibrant documentaries like Planet Earth (average of 5.67 million television viewers), the "geeky" is becoming a respected way of life. Examples abound, but what does this mean for STEM education and our workforce?
According to a STEMconnector study, only 28 percent of high school freshman declared an interest in STEM-related fields, and 57 percent of those students will lose interest in STEM subjects before they graduate. Sally Ride, the first American woman in space and active advocate for early STEM education, has stated that "many students, particularly girls and minorities, begin to disengage from these subjects. They feel and internalize the influences of peer pressure." Peer pressure exists because of a multitude of factors, such as gender stereotypes, socioeconomic factors, and a lack of access to technology.
However, little by little, the social pressure on interested young scientists, mathematicians and engineers is being relieved. Everyone, even young students of both genders and all ethnicities, is using technology daily and often. Have you looked around a restaurant or coffee shop lately? Filled with blue screens -- it always amazes me.
In the same STEMconnector study, we found that it is easier to cultivate existing interest in STEM than create new interest, but what if the existing interest in technology could be used to reach students who are typically unreceptive to more traditional programs? Video games, social media and smartphones have all gained remarkable popular culture traction in the last few years. Inspiring educators are making strides to spin students' high awareness of technology to translate into increased interest in STEM-related courses and careers. Youth are now on Cisco Network Academies learning how to run networks in high school in 160 countries.
In today's educational system, the options are endless to inspire your students and peers! Educators could: form a girls-only technology club to build iPhone apps; write and produce a blog; film and edit documentary footage; create a Facebook marketing page. Do your students like video games? Of course they do! Ignite their interest in learning to code so they you can make their own games that are fun, engaging and totally unique? You could have students who play Xbox (so many do!) in a classroom after school, developing essential, in-demand STEM skills while building valuable relationships with mentors and peers. Once students are in the classroom and engaged by innovative projects, teachers can even begin cultivate their interest in other STEM fields like cyber security and innovation in healthcare to prevent viral diseases (a few episodes of 24 should do the trick).
By associating STEM skills with technology that children use and enjoy, educators can generate more interest in STEM, especially with traditionally hard-to-reach groups. How? By letting students let their geek flags fly and build a culture where being "geeky" and smart is cool in your school!
Technology is developing at an exponential rate, and it will only become more integrated with our lives in the years to come. STEM professionals and educators should be using that to our advantage. If students are convinced that STEM skills are "cool," then they will be more likely to pursue it after high school, get a great job, likely make at least 30% more in salary, and be successful and globally competitive.
Graduates, let your geek flags fly. Mentor others and welcome students and classmates to pull out their argyle socks, thick black glasses with masking tape, and lead!
Written with J. Marshall Pearson