You’re the Inspiration: Talking to Kids about STEM

I’m interacting with lots of young people these days. Last week I went to Chewning Middle School in Durham, NC, to speak with students about my experiences growing up and working my way into a career in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) field. And later this week I’m returning once again to judge the NC Regional FIRST Robotics Competition at the Dorton Arena in Raleigh.

If you’re a longtime reader of our blog, you know that I relish these opportunities to get kids excited about STEM. (And if you’re new to our blog, see my past posts about the enthusiasm shown by the FIRST robotics teams and classroom talks.) Last week’s middle school visit was no exception.

I visited Chewning as part of Durham’s Innovation for Motivation (i4m) program, which  seeks to engage middle school students in educational intersession programming that is innovative, interactive and inspiring. The program helps Chewning students make a meaningful connection to school so they are more motivated to succeed.

We started by playing a question game. I asked them to count on their fingers whenever they answered “yes” to questions like: who likes dogs better than cats, whose parents came from another country, who likes playing with legos even though you’re almost a grown-up, who likes taking things apart even if you can’t put them back together. At the end of the game, the student with the most “yes” answers was “just like me” (and received a cool NASA pen).

I took my favorite lego sets with me—a motorcycle and a space shuttle—and talked a bit about my background. Each student spoke about career goals, which was an excellent opportunity for me to reinforce that education keeps options open and provides choices.

I encourage all tech transfer professionals to get involved in supporting and inspiring kids who feel called to the STEM field. If you’re going to visit a classroom to speak with students, let me offer these suggestions.

1. Connect with the kids on a personal level. Help them realize that you used to be just like them. Here’s a variation on the question game I played with the students at Chewning, but using playing cards, that I’ve found effective for speaking with younger students.

2. Make it entertaining and interesting for them. Talk about technologies they know, but don’t get overly technical. Talk in terms of your everyday activities. By focusing on things they can relate to and understand, you’ll hold their attention longer.

3. Be casual. Don’t use PowerPoint unless it’s a lot of cool pictures. Dressing casually is a good way to be approachable, but check with teachers first to make sure they’re not trying to teach them about how to dress for success.

4. Bring good swag. Everyone loves swag. But make sure the stuff you give the kids is what they’ll care about. (I took earbuds to the kids at Chewning.) In fact, it’s probably better not to give them anything than to give swag that’s boring, too young, or passé.

5. Focus on the options: One of the great things about having a STEM degree is that there is a wide range of jobs they can have. Talk about what you do, but also discuss the other options that will be available to them later if they get into STEM now. For example, back when I used to have a motorcycle, I’d tell the kids about how I took a ride every morning, and I could do that because I had my own business, and I that was because I got a STEM degree. See what I mean?

Do you give career talks to students? What are your techniques for connecting with them? Or what other advice do you have? Post a comment below or send me a private message.

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Posted by Laura Schoppe

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