Better understanding of STEM topics would be good for all of us

Their voices echo in the study rooms of Ellis Library and their cries hang in the backs of auditoriums – chanting ‘I’m bad at math’ and ‘I’m just not a science person.’

Freshman chemical engineer major at University of Illinois, Atreyo Ghosh, said that it has become a common belief that interest and knowledge in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) subjects is a gift given to only a few. And this, he said, is a grave mistake.

“We have that stigma in society that you’re either born with being good at math or bad at math,” Ghosh said. “That’s completely untrue. It’s just like any other skill. Through practice, you become better at it over time. It’s extremely important to have a basic understanding of history and the humanities, even if you aren’t going into a field related to that, and science and math must be treated the same way.”

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development ranked the United States 14th in the world for scientific literacy. The National Science Foundation found the United States is “fairly low” in scientific literacy. The foundation encourages a basic knowledge of scientific facts, concepts and vocabulary. They found that those who possess such skills are better able to follow science news and participate in public discourse.

Ghosh agrees, if people were more familiar and had a basic understanding of STEM topics, he said there would be less controversies surrounding sound science. He also believes the job market will require it.

“With increasingly advanced technologies being introduced in factories and in numerous job sectors,” Ghosh said. “Having a scientifically literate population is really important.”

Columbia Area Career Center (CACC) laboratory teacher and Project Lead the Way instructor, Christine Roberson, said that it is critical for people to keep up with STEM learning because those subjects refine themselves every day.

“Every day, the STEM fields both show us that our world is more complex than was thought the day before, and makes the world more complex than it was before,” Roberson said. “As the population increases on this small little life boat called Earth, it is important that the entire population is educated in STEM.”


School is cool

Ghosh found his roots in STEM in Columbia Public Schools. EEE and CACC challenged him and encouraged him, he said, to pursue his dreams. He said Columbia Public Schools encouraged his interests and gave him lots of opportunities to explore all his possible career paths. Living in a college town helped Ghosh, also, as he took classes at Mizzou and pursued research even in high school.

Roberson, agreed that because Columbia has the University of Missouri – a major research university with medical and veterinary schools – that the town has advantages over many communities of a similar size. The expansion of opportunities for public school students, including Benton Elementary School’s adoption of a STEM based curriculum, the middle school field trips for outdoor learning and the Yellowstone trips are a “great way to get students involved in aspects of STEM,” she said.

In addition to taking large amounts of science classes in high school, Roberson got the unique opportunity to attend a camp for students interested in STEM fields, called Frontiers of Science Institute. Here she met with industry professionals who got her and other students enthusiastic about research.

“It was exciting to speak with people who had shaped the world I lived in, and to study and live with the people who would shape the world when we became adults,” Roberson said.

Both Ghosh and Roberson encourage students to get involved in clubs and programs, to take challenging courses on STEM topics and to learn firsthand by watching and doing research. When Roberson created the CACC’s laboratory program she challenged herself to hook kids on STEM.

“I think one of the most important things that I can do is to spark curiosity in my students,” Roberson said. “To convey that with each answer the STEM fields finds, it also uncovers at least 10 more questions.”


Not just a university town

One reason Ghosh found his passion in STEM is because of the intrigue that comes with “miraculous miracles.”

The summer before his senior year in high school, Ghosh and a friend, Katelyn Race, were working in a lab and made a miscalculation about the amount of a chemical they needed to add to form an adsorbent they were creating. However, this adsorbent actually turned out to be far better than the one they were trying to create. Their research turned out quite fruitful because they had made a math mistake. “Whoops?” Ghosh said.

This kind of magic can inspire scientists of all ages.

“I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in the STEM fields,” Roberson said. “I was encouraged to be curious and ask questions as a child. I was allowed to catch bugs, dig in the dirt, build with an incredible amount of Legos and observe plants and animals when my family went hiking.”

Daniel Boone Regional Library puts on dozens of programs a year to spark such excitement. “Block parties” are held for young kids – teaching the creation of houses out of Legos (basic engineering skills.) “Party with the Stars” program is held in the spring to teach folks of all ages about the sky and how to use a telescope. “Angry Birds” parties teach kids how to use the power of angles and trajectory in reaching their targets. And during the summer, DBRL hosts a “Fizz, Boom, and Read” themed program that relates reading and science.

Sara Howard, Children and Youth Services manager at DBRL, hosts the Lego program, and said she sees 50 to 60 people use the blocks within a two-hour time span.

From this program, Howard said, the children learn social, math and spatial skills. The youngest learn colors and shapes and the older kids learn sorting, matching and building. Occasionally, a lesson in patience is even learned, while waiting for that one two-by-four yellow piece you want that the other guy is playing with.

Outside the library, Columbia is brimming with opportunities. Almost every Saturday morning, people file into the Bond Life Sciences Center for doughnuts and learning. The University of Missouri’s Saturday Morning Science has hosted 240 talks and has been attended by 31,143 people, according to their website.

Saturday Morning Science, the public library, Earth Day, Project Lead the Way, the CACC, True/False Film Festival and all the other Columbian STEM programs are successful at getting people of all ages at least interested in science and the cool things one can do with it by showing them how science inspires.

“When I look at the world through the lenses of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, every glance out the window becomes more meaningful and beautiful,” Roberson said. “At the most basic level, everyone needs a broad fundamental understanding of the STEM fields so to be informed decision makers, whether it is on daily choices or at the voting booth.  We need every mind we can find to be engaged in to the STEM fields, because it is only through the application of these fields that the human species is going to survive.”

Maria Kalaitzandonakes

About the Author Maria

I’m a CoMo native with a mile-long last name. I’m a sucker for wool socks, classic Coca Cola and afternoon naps. If I had a pet, I’d dub it Pigwidgeon, or maybe Alastor. I’ve stood right in between Asia and Europe, eaten my weight in lamb meat and walked the Great Wall. I’m fluent in Greek and a little wobbly in Spanish. I’ve broken my arm and lost five pairs of glasses. And I say both with an L, as in boLth, like a true Missourian. Before I became a tiger, I was a bruin, at Columbia’s very own Rock Bridge High School. There I got my start in agriculture and journalism. I ran the student newspaper and magazine, learning that I had a love for storytelling. CAFNR is where I call home right now, as an Agricultural Economics and Science and Agricultural Journalism double-major student. Someday I may use this degree for a career in agricultural public policy or foreign agricultural services. But for now, I’m just a freshman with some pretty blurry pipe dreams.