This is how you make kids love math


A pupil writes on the blackboard as he attends a mathematics lesson at a local school based in the remote Russian village of Bolshie Khutora. (VASILY FEDOSENKO/REUTERS)
June 4, 2012

David Steel is Executive Vice President of Strategy for Samsung Electronics North America. He holds a Ph.D. in physics from MIT and an MBA from the University of Chicago.

Of all U.S. high school students who graduated in 2011, only 45 percent were ready for college-level math and a mere 30 percent were ready for science, according to ACT, a college-entrance testing agency. These data reflect the great challenge facing the U.S. in preparing students for science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) careers.

Unfortunately, this STEM challenge is having a negative economic impact on the U.S. For example, Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce predicts that by 2018, the U.S. will fall short by at least 3 million workers with college degrees.

One of the obstacles to solving this problem is that students are simply not interested in or excited by STEM subjects. With the notable exception of Iron Man’s alter ego Tony Stark, our popular culture doesn’t often celebrate engineers, scientists, or mathematicians. According to a recent survey by Intel Corporation and Change the Equation, a non-profit coalition of more than 100 CEOs focused on STEM learning in U.S. schools, three out of five teenagers have never considered a career in engineering. So it’s no wonder that high school students can’t appreciate how STEM learning translates into a career.

It’s not that students don’t like engineers or engineering. The Intel survey also shows that teenagers just do not understand exactly what it is that an engineer does. But when the teenagers surveyed understood that engineers create the tools and experiences that comprise their daily lives — such as texting on their smart phone, sharing experiences with friends on Facebook or creating gaming technologies -- more than half then expressed an interest in engineering.

The difficulties of getting students excited by science are many. Funding is tight, teachers are strapped, and students are bored. But one opportunity to fight this slump is for technology companies to step up in order to raise interest in STEM education. While the schools focus on cultivating the capabilities, those of us in the tech sector can help address the challenge of interest. After all, it’s easier for tech companies to see the direct benefits of STEM since we live and breathe it every day.

This is why collaboration between corporate America and the education sector is key to promoting this awareness. Companies, such as Boeing and IBM, are sending scientists and engineers into schools to talk about technology-focused careers and real-life experiences with hopes of piquing interest. Increased interaction between students and STEM professionals can help show that it is possible to study STEM subjects and still be cool.

There are other structured ways in which businesses can support students’ hands-on application of STEM subjects, such as creating and sponsoring competitions and science fairs, as we’re working to do at Samsung.

A similar approach can be seen from For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST), a non-profit that channels interest in STEM through team competitions. Dean Kamen, the inventor of the Segway, is the founder of the organization. Kamen started FIRST to inspire kids the same way that athletes and movie stars do – by showing them the possibilities are endless. But instead of being motivated to work on their three-point shot in the hopes of becoming a professional athlete, he wanted them to be empowered by scientists and engineers to be big thinkers.

An important difference between the FIRST teams and sports teams that Kamen likes to point out is that every kid on a FIRST team can “turn pro.” FIRST has motivated 250,000 kids age 6-18 to compete in FIRST events. Studies also show that kids who participated are 50 percent more likely to go to college and twice as likely to major in science or engineering.

With the great challenge of raising the interest level in STEM subjects, there is much that technology companies can do to get kids to see STEM as fun. That alone can be a big contribution to solving the current challenges around STEM education.

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