How do we inspire the next generation of leaders and innovators around STEM? This is the question that everyone is trying to answer. There is no one answer or silver bullet. Everyone is inspired by different things, ideas, topics, passions, experience… however almost all of them do have one thing in common – a story. A narrative is a powerful tool, even more powerful than data and statistics. We rarely connect or remember numbers, however stories touch us and connect to our emotions and dreams.
As an Einstein Fellow in the U.S. Senate years ago, I worked for Sen. Michael Bennet from Colorado and he shared with me a thought that has stayed with me. He never would speak on the floor of the senate or discuss data without a story attached. The idea that no one would listen to data, that personal stories bring on personal connections; which is what we all remember. There could be data that part of the continent was about to split off and sink into the ocean; and without a story connecting the “who cares” – he wouldn’t speak about it. No one would be moved to act unless there was a narrative. A narrative can inspire.
Growing up a child of the 80’s, there were inspiring narratives all around me in pop culture. From astronauts taking off in the space shuttle to Top Gun & Space Camp in theatres, STEM was part of life; and an exciting one at that. Video games and computers were just becoming “the thing” and finding Carmen Sandiego was on the to do list of every kid. Inspiration for creativity, critical thinking, and going into STEM was endless. Then, something changed; I can’t pinpoint the exact time, but our culture evolved. Well maybe not “evolved,” but definitely changed.
The shuttle program was retired, and astronauts became unknowns to kids. Look at some of the top “STEM” movies of the last few years; Gravity, The Martian, and Interstellar; and tell me which one inspires you to be an astronaut. Granted Hidden Figures was a gem in a swathe of negative films about space. Hidden Figures was powerful and moving and provided a look at minorities (especially women) making an impact in our history through STEM.
People connected to Hidden Figures because of the narrative. It was a moving and powerful story…. And that story made more of an impact than all the collective of data showing the critical need of minorities and women in STEM fields. The problem is that this narrative only takes students to inspiration, not past. It doesn’t help our students move past the initial inspiration. Unfortunately, the pathways towards a career in STEM is out of date.
This is where we all need to pick up the mantle and “complete the equation” per-say. The current world our students live in cannot be counted on to create the innovators needed for the future. Even if our students become inspired by a movie or story, rarely does it highlight the pathways to follow in order to make the idea real and tangible for a students future. We have a heavy focus on “STEM Heros” (which is great) but very little focus on removing the pedestal and replacing it with steps. The STEM Heros (which includes educators) of today need to share their stories, not just their accomplishments.
When I started to develop my own STEM story I looked for examples and found there are some great templates and examples already created. Pixar has mastered the art of the narrative and created “22 Tips on Storytelling” including ones like “You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.” One of my favorite articles on telling a story is on Sparkol titled “8 Classic Storytelling Techniques for Engaging Presentations” which helps think through and actually plan your narrative.
I challenge you to begin to think, plan and tell your own STEM story. What brought you to this point in your career? Why STEM for you? What pathway did you follow to get here? What pathways are available for the students of today? We won’t inspire students to be the innovators of the future if we don’t being the giants of today and help our future climb onto our backs.