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Commentary: Engagement in STEM Begins with Autonomy & Responsibility

STEM has become a potent buzzword. It is often fired at youth with zeal, but is not always communicated with a clear and precise purpose, like a rush of air from a balloon that popped in your face, exhilarating yet confusing. STEM is sort of battle cry that buoys a need for our generation to meet all of the monumental scientific challenges of tomorrow. We have great faith that our generation, and those following us, will rise to the occasion to meet this demand, there is simply no precedent for the amount of incredible work young people are doing today. But the message adults send when flying the STEM flag often feels erroneous.

Sometimes it seems the current messages around STEM are reminiscent of those old World War II Uncle Sam posters; “We Want YOU! To do STEM! To fix the World!” Don’t get us wrong, rallying the troops is half the battle and we need this kind of campaigning to make students feel welcome and encouraged to ‘jump into the fray’. Yet it is also vital that beneath the surface of encouraging words and excited STEM marketing that there is a real opportunity for students to do the work that they were enlisted to do.

If we really want students to help solve the world’s problems (and young people are, in fact, some of the best world-savers you can ask for with their unassuming audacity and creativity), then we better walk the walk. To start, it’s important to recognize that young people know when they’re being duped and being genuine with a student will go a very long way in capturing their zeal for STEM exploration. An obvious and simple case is what you see in many science-themed education video games. They were designed to be engaging, but in reality, most young people find these games abhorrent and akin to chocolate-covered broccoli. This is because the designer did not ask students what they wanted and instead assumed their desires.

A lot of STEM initiatives taste and smell like chocolate covered broccoli, because often adults do not trust students to know what they want. If the aim is to engage today’s youth in taking on the world of STEM, there needs to be dialogue, trust, and genuine desire to help students achieve what they want to achieve. If we want to create explorers, students need to be allowed to explore. If we want to create inventors, students must have the means and support to invent. If we want to create problem solvers, students must be trusted and encouraged to actually tackle real problems.

The challenge that must be overcome falls back to the age-old realization that with greater autonomy comes greater responsibility. It is the responsibility part that causes many adults to have reservations. This is scientifically understandable, since the brains of young people are still developing and will continue to do so until around 22 or 23. However, trusting in youth is a risk that our society should take, because the potential returns are off the chart. The benefits include having a new set of eyes look at knot theory, cancer treatment, and solar cells without the limitations of conventional thoughts that experts traditionally have. As young people get older they lose creativity (as a result of learning more about the limitations of the world) and gain wisdom (as a result of learning more about the complexities and realities of the world). We need both skills in balance to solve some of the most pressing issues of today.

There are some adults who really get it. This week a group of students from the USA Science and Engineering Festival (USASEF) Advisory Board will be running our own event, called STEMspiration. Our. Own. Event. No adult is running our event. We were trusted to take it on ourselves. This is indeed what walking the walk looks like, and it is exciting and encouraging to see organizations like USASEF provide the opportunity for students to define our own endeavors and goals and to help us get there.

We need every student to feel at home in the world of STEM so that we will have a generation of STEM thinkers and doers like no other.