Mohawks and STEM

Mohawks and STEM

“Special Mohawk guy?” I thought all guys with Mohawks were special?

So a blog writer for the white house managed to connect Mohawks and STEM education via Bobak Ferdowsi (Mohawk sporting flight director of the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity mission). Follow him on twitter, @BobakFerdowsi.

First off, Mohawks are cool. Yep. Even when they aren’t to support the EFF.

Second, if you don’t know the acronym du jour, STEM is an educational and political buzz-term for science, technology, engineering and math education. It’s a fad that has helped create charter schools and given school officials and politicians a rallying point to say “we’re doing something!”

From TFA:

That’s why President Obama has called upon the 200,000 Federal employees working in STEM fields to bring their passion and expertise to their communities and schools in support of STEM education, and help “stoke that same curiosity in students which had perhaps led them to pursue a career in science.”

Actually he probably said “stoke that same…curiosityinstudents…which had. perhaps. led them….topursueacareerinscience.” Come on, I can’t be the only person that thinks a debate between our President and Kirk/Shatner would be hilarious. “Even.when.we. discussimportantdecisions…we…overact.”

I’m torn on this whole thing. First off, I would bet many of those federal employees didn’t pursue a career in science, rather careers in engineering. Ok, that’s a bit ticky, but it’s true. There is a difference.

My concerns are with how STEM education is presented. I wholeheartedly support strong education for all students in math, science, and technology. Still haven’t quite figured out why they say “technology AND engineering”, unless the buzz-cro-nym folks are from those poor misfortunante souls that think that networking and computers are “technology” and “engineering” is “designing anything else”.

Anyway, my wife is a teacher. I’m an engineer. This is stuff that hits close to home, and it’s important.

The issue I have is with the president’s statement is that it sums up what I’ve heard from many “decisions makers”, administrators, politicians, and even educators who don’t understand. They present it as though if you just STEM kids, it will spark their curiosity and they will all go off and become “scientists”.

And so educators have to present a curriculum full of “gee whiz, isn’t science cool!” to kids. “Look, mixing chemicals together causes a reaction! Ready to apply to MIT? No, let’s go to the contraption museum! I bet you can get in to Stanford!” I know a lot of engineers and other technical folks. Right now I can’t think of one who followed that path because some “gee whiz” at school was a life altering moment. All the “why I got in to this” stories are similar to mine. It feels like something you were born with. You can’t imagine doing anything else, these technical things always just made sense.

Now if indeed that is the spark that ignites a technical career, fantastic. And do not take my comments as saying teachers shouldn’t be supportive. Kids need support from teachers, parents, family and friends; it is critical no matter what interest the child has. The right support can mean the difference between a successful life and a failure to reach orbit. But to me, this STEM buzz seems to miss a critical point.

We don’t set up schools where all the kids play football, or electric guitar, race cars, or act. All of these fields share something with technical fields. A person just doesn’t decide one day that they will be Formula 1 world champion. Yes, opportunity and “curiosity” are very important, but equally important is fundamental talent.

I did my undergrad with a number of people who entered the program because “engineers make a lot of money”. I doubt I would hire any of them today. Science, engineering; these fields require someone with skills (which can be learned), but also talent and passion (which can’t). Those guys in it “for the money” don’t last long. I’m sure some of them make it, but the best techies are those who would be do this kind of work anyway, the ones who go out of their way to make interesting projects on their own time.

It’s important that all school-children receive a strong, well rounded education. A part of that education should be to spark curiosity in as many creative realms as possible. Music, art, film, tech, engineering, science, writing, photography…the list goes on and on. But just like those realms, a shotgun approach to science, math, and engineering, because it makes for a good sound bite, may not be the best way to create the next generation of technical professionals. Spark interest in all realms, and then focus the specialty teaching on those students who show the most interest and talent in the subject.

I’m interested in hearing real world stories from boffins, hackers, makers, engineers, scientists, programmers, physicists, even math guys…all you geeks…about why you took the path you did. Were teachers inspiration, support, or both? Where do you think you got your talent and drive? Can you point to any one or set of events that guided your decision to pursue a technical profession?

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