STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) careers are getting a lot of press these days. They are important for global competitiveness and the general advancement of human-kind. STEM is also one of the few job markets (especially the “engineering” component) with good salaries and a lot of opportunity. It’s natural to want your kids to head in this direction; so how do you go about doing that?
First, and most important, if your child has no interest in STEM – maybe wants to be an artist or a welder – shut up, be a parent, and support them. We need artists and welders too. Those aren’t second rate choices. They’re just choices, like an engineering career is a choice. We need kids that will grow up to be happy adults, not puppets. You can introduce STEM, but don’t push it and don’t make them feel bad if they’re not interested. Someone who has passion and support for what they do is more likely to be happy and productive than someone pushed into something they don’t want.
Beyond that, you again need to be a parent. Listen to them carefully and look around to see what they are up against. My daughter started in the FIRST Lego robotics program in the 4th grade. Her teams were about equal proportions of boys and girls. But, by the time she left middle school for high school, she was one of two girls left in the program. Through high school, she was always a tiny minority in her science and technology classes. It’s not just girls that drop out, but it seems to be most noticeable with girls due to the numbers.
The peer and societal pressures have been described many times in many places before. It’s sufficient to say that, in many circles, being a geek is not seen as being socially acceptable; except in the context of a TV sit-com. It’s funny when the “geeks” can throw out one-liners that have been crafted by a team of professional writers. Not so much when it’s the kid in the next seat over that struggles to respond to conversations about football or beer brands. Help your child to understand that technology and knowledge are not qualifiers for the “weird club.” Make sure they also understand that labor and grease also are not qualifiers for a different kind of “weird club.”
The recent case (late September, 2015) of the 14 year old boy arrested for bringing his “homebuilt” clock to school is a good case in point. Many people fear wires. In the movies, blue, green and red wires are what you have to choose wisely between to successfully defuse a bomb. In the real life world of a 14 year old kid, with a mind thirsting for knowledge, blue, green, and red wires are signal, ground, and power.
There is quite possibly more to this story than has been published, but maybe not. Later articles talked about the fact that his clock was simply a purchased clock, taken out of it’s plastic case and hacked into a mini-suit case. Deriding him for that is a sure fire way to stifle curiosity. When I was 14, most of my “electronics projects” were of a very similar nature. Many were even less complex.
The first time you open up an electronic gadget is like opening up a grab bag. You don’t know what it is, nor what you can do with it. You see shiny metal, wires, chips, and displays. You know that whatever makes it all work is truly amazing, but you have yet to grasp the significance of any of the parts. Over time, you will. Or, you will if you manage to keep the interest up and avoid being branded a delinquent over your quest for knowledge.
If your child takes apart a clock, your obligation, as a parent, is to make sure they don’t electrocute themselves or burn the house down. After that, it’s your mission to encourage. Explain, if you can. If you can’t explain, teach them about research and self-learning. Don’t treat their interest like a disease. Treat it like what it is: the quest of an explorer for knowledge.