What’s Your STEM Story?

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.

Link: Blank STEM Story Template

Transdisciplinary STEM: Making Pedagogy Real

So what does transdisciplinary teaching and learning actually look like? Following up on a post around the pedagogical importance of this idea: Transdisciplinary STEM: Teaching to Mirror the World. To understand what transdisciplinary teaching and learning is and move from abstract to concrete, let’s first explore what it’s NOT:

  • It is NOT thematic teaching.
  • It is NOT forcing content together.
  • It is NOT stopping curriculum and teaching a separate unit.
  • It is NOT doing a project or just teaching through PBL.

Secondly, what CAN transdisciplinary teaching and learning include:

  • It CAN be taught through a PBL.
  • It CAN include a project.
  • It CAN include multiple curriculum connected through interdisciplinary instruction.

Finally, what does transdisciplinary teaching and learning REQUIRE:

  • It REQUIRES planning.
  • It REQUIRES bridging connections between content and the outside world.
  • It REQUIRES collaboration.

There are a great number of graphics that can help showcase the idea of transdisciplinary pedagogy. The way to think about this pedagogy is to focus on the prefix “trans”; coming from latin origins meaning “beyond.” The topic idea must transverse all disciplines, connecting to each through real-world or organic experiences. 

Credit: Greenwich Schools, CT
Credit: University of Technology Sydney
Credit: Gendered Knowledges Blog UK

To effectively implement a transdisciplinary model of instruction, educators and leaders need to brainstorm and select concepts that are not disciplinary in nature but touch (or go beyond) all disciplines. The example we will use is that of “Design”. The idea of design can be connected to any discipline from engineering and science to physical education or the fine arts – not necessarily by teaching design but through utilizing the idea or reading about it or framing disciplinary content with the idea.


An inquiry into how ideas are transformed into tangible artifacts.

Once the transdisciplinary topic is set, educators now dig into the content they are asked to teach during the year and look for connections – again not necessarily teaching design in separate disciplines, but through utilizing the design process itself or reading/analyzing the idea of design or framing content with the idea of design.

Here are some examples of resources in a number of disciplines which engage the topic of “design” whether directly or indirectly AND teach standards that are required relative to a specific discipline.


The James Dyson FoundationThe Design Process Box – Challenges students to find inspiration in everyday objects and develop ideas and to identify problems and use their creativity to find solutions. http://bit.ly/DysonDesign



EVERFI – Endeavor: STEM Career Exploration – Lets students explore STEM careers via interactive gameplay and real-world scenarios. A manufacturing module has students explore 3D printers then design and rapid prototype their own sneakers. http://bit.ly/EverfiSTEM



Wonderopolis – Is Design a Science or an Art – Have you ever wondered is design a science or an art? What is the origin of the word “design”? How does good design combine science and art? http://bit.ly/DesignAnArt



Visible Thinking Routines – Tug of War – A routine for exploring the complexity of opposing dilemmas through metacognitive visible thinking. http://bit.ly/VT-TugOfWar


Fine Art: 

Joel Sartore – Photo Ark – A groundbreaking effort to document species before they disappear and to get people to care while there’s still time. Highlight the importance of storytelling in conservation, and empower students to spread the word about species extinction. https://www.joelsartore.com/photo-ark/


Physical Education:

Try Engineering – Engineered Sports – Students examine principles of aerospace engineering and how they have impacted golf ball design. Students analyze the use of dimples on golf balls, and discuss adding dimples to airplanes to increase fuel efficiency. Students take engineering principles and apply them to sporting equipment.  http://bit.ly/EngineeredSports


When these resources (and others connecting the idea of “design”) are infused into everyday content and teaching; connections are made through context to the transdisciplinary concept. Teachers aren’t “teaching” design in each subject area, but framing the learning and standards that already must be taught with the context of this concept that goes beyond a singular discipline.

Want to read more about this pedagogy? Check out the book Transitioning to Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction: How to Bring Content and Process Together by H. Lynn Erickson and Lois A. Lanning.

Transdisciplinary STEM: Teaching to Mirror the World

At what time do you start your mathematics for the day? At what time do you stop using critical thinking and solving problems for the day? On which day of the week do you investigate connections between the past and your world today? These questions are seemingly ridiculous to any adult. Life itself is not divided into segments in which content and skills are only used at specific times and days. So, it begs the question; why do we teach students in this way?

John Donne penned a famous poem stating, “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” This is how we need to begin to change our thinking when it comes to content in schools. In the world outside of education we use content, ideas, skills, and strategies across disciplines to make sense of situations, solve problems, and complete everyday tasks. Our pathways are not directed by the disciplines, but by larger concepts or ideas which utilize all the disciplines and their associated skills as tools to be successful in our endeavors.

STEM education as well as education as a whole, needs to move away from presenting content in highly focused silos centered around isolated disciplines. It is essential that STEM education shifts to a more inclusive model of pedagogy which helps prepare students for all aspects of the world, not just having disciplinary expertise. In a world where the internet and google don’t exist, content expertise is ultimately important; however, we don’t live in that world. We live in a world where employers don’t just value content expertise, but value “what else can you do” or “how can you use that expertise” even more. The world outside our classrooms is less about facts, and more about what our students can do with them.

Learning is essentially a matter of creating meaning from the real activities of daily living. 

David Stein, Situated Learning in Adult Education, 1998.

Learning truly happens within the context of the world, experiences in utilizing knowledge to create meaning. The idea of transdisciplinary STEM is based directly in this notion, that our students are better prepared for the world beyond the classroom when they understand the “why” of needing to know and the “how” of content connecting across disciplines. Basarab Nicolescu shares in The Transdisciplinary Evolution of Learning that in the 21stcentury we need to change our emphasis from just “Learning to Know” to a broader purpose. Teachers need to equally emphasize instruction on “Learning to Do”, “Learning to Live Together”, and “Learning to Be”; in other words, preparing students for life beyond the classroom.

In the classroom, the idea of transdisciplinary STEM presents itself in not what we teach, but how we teach. Centering our standards and content around larger concepts in which all disciplines can engage and add to understanding the connectedness of the real-world. Concepts such as Innovation and Interdependence provide opportunities for all disciplines to build learning experiences which mirror real-life and provide openings for students to make sense of the world around them. This pedagogy is not about forced integration of science, technology, engineering, or mathematics into other content areas, but about building understanding and meaning about the world through all disciplines. With all disciplines building connections to a larger concept, students begin to see the interconnectedness of content and skills in the world around them. Science skills, reading skills, mathematics skills, as well as the litany of skills labeled by a discipline become real-life skills in the context of learning. The walls come down and bridges are built.

No content is an island entire of itself; every content is a piece of the continent, a part of a transdisciplinary world. Transdisciplinary STEM not only provides students with the content and tools for success, but develops students into life-long learners who will leave a lasting impact on the world.

Supporting Daughters in STEM

This is my daughter Ava.

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Ava is four and a half years old and has endless possibilities in front of her. She loves Wonder Woman, ballet, unicorns, Walt Disney World, making her own music, dancing, watching Star Wars and acting it out with BB8, building LEGO’s, racing HotWheels (cars), drawing, building forts, and baking. Every day I tell her  that she can truly be anything she wants. I am not saying this because like most fathers, I believe my daughter has the right to do anything. I say this because she is growing up in a house where traditional gender stereotypes won’t hold her back from her future, in STEM or wherever it leads. There is no “girl stuff” and “boy stuff”; everything is “our stuff”. Ava is interested in things that her mom and her dad are interested in, and it’s up to us to ensure she learns that no one will be able to hold her back from her dreams, even as a princess-doctor-ballerina.

As a father, I am acutely aware of the impact I have on my daughter. Negative self perception has plagued generations of girls from entering STEM fields. By the time a student reaches sixth grade, they have made a conscious decision whether they are good at math and science. For many girls, their own self perceptions in these areas are negative.


A National Science Foundation project out of the University of Michigan has recently shown the significant impact dads have on girls and gender stereotypes. Fathers’ gender stereotypes are incredibly important in supporting (or in undermining) daughters’ choices to pursue math and science. The study found that girls’ interest in math decreases as their fathers’ gender stereotypes increase. This issue has not been lost on society though.

Brad Meltzer wrote an amazing book highlighting amazing women in our culture as well as (more importantly in my mind) in his own life as well. The idea that role models and heroes in STEM, as well as in life, have to be larger than life personalities is dispelled by Brad as he highlights the ordinary people who do amazing things. This book inspired me to share with my own daughter the amazing women in our family and circle of friends.

Click here to learn more…

Mattel and Barbie have had many critics on their role in gender stereotyping over the years. However, over the past 5 years they have been actively trying to change those stereotypes through campaigns such as #DadsWhoPlayBarbie and #YouCanBeAnything. Helping dads see the impact of playing and interacting in the world of their daughters forms a tighter bond and research shows that girls who have loving, communicative, supportive relationships with their dads from early childhood on are less likely to suffer from a lack of self-confidence as she grows up. A lack of self-confidence has been a barrier and a critical need for young girls in developing an interest in STEM.

Click here to learn more…

Dads and daughters have always had a special bond. That bond shapes our daughters views on the world as well as how they see themselves fitting. As fathers, we need to look at the subtle gender biases we impress on our young girls and boys. A 2016 study found that U.S. teenagers with supportive fathers have greater optimism and self-efficacy, which translates to better school achievement. The results occurred even for fathers with little education and limited English. Perception is the greatest impactor on shaping our children and how we connect with our daughters will shape their self perception for the future. Verizon showcased how our words impact our daughters self perceptions with their #InspireHerMind Campaign.

My favorite line really has resonated with so many people, “Isn’t it time we told her she’s pretty brilliant, too?” Being supportive is the first step to preparing our children for their futures. Children who grow up being nurtured by both parental females and males are less likely to gender stereotype and have a more open self perception of what is possible. Girls who see that both men and women can be nurturers and typical household roles are shared and not “owned” by a man or a woman grow up to see possibilities instead of barriers.

The same goes for empathy. Children with involved dads are more sensitive to people who are different than them. By being involved, children see how parents succeed and fail and wind up granting forgiveness for parents’ faults. They also see how men and women handle such situations differently. It has been proven and shared thousands of times, diversity strengthens society and companies. The more diverse a group that is solving a problem, then more effective the solution becomes. Preparing our children to work in these situations prepares them for a successful future.

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Try taking a quick Gender Role Quiz to reflect upon your own perceptions, your own upbringing, and your current house hold.

All of these items and issues, from empathy to self assuredness, tie back to preparing our daughters for a future in STEM. Microsoft recently published a report called “Closing the STEM Gap” which showed that having an encouraging Dad who communicates about STEM is associated with girls being an average of +17 points more interested in all STEM subjects. Because many girls still think of STEM as skewing male, it helps to have men in their lives saying, ‘This is open to you, too.’ Dads also had the greatest impact on whether girls were interested in taking computer science, technology, and engineering classes in school. According to a 2015 Girl Scouts report, 68% of teen girls interested in STEM say their dads play a key part in encouraging them.

Dads are only part of the solution though. There are so many “specialized” groups supporting STEM, empowering young learners of all races, ethnicities, genders, and backgrounds. We need to remember that it takes a village though. Dads may increase girls interest in STEM by 17%, however when dads and moms support girls in STEM together, we see a 27% increase. When parents partner with teachers in supporting STEM for girls, it becomes a 32% increase.

Mom and Dad support
Click here to learn more…

To better prepare our daughters (and sons) for a future in STEM, here are a few things to consider that can make a big difference:

  1. Consider What We Say and How We Say It
    • Research shows a father can have an immense impact on language. Among the strongest predictors of a child’s language competence is his father’s vocabulary
    • Try not to modify your speech when speaking to your daughters vs. your sons
    • Don’t fall into typical gender stereotypes
      • “Boys will be boys” & girls shouldn’t get messy
  2. Teach Persistence, Not Perfection
    • Perfection places a lot of unwarranted stress on our daughters to “not fail” while the real world doesn’t operate by this same creed
    • Adam Savage stated it best:Fail vs Failure
    • We need to take opportunities to teach our daughters how to fail forward and learn from experiences
  3. Showcase/Highlight Strong Female Role Models
    • Introducing our daughters to women in STEM fields, highlight strong women in fields that our daughters are passionate about
    • Sometimes even female STEM heroes can be intimidating – so highlight “real everyday people” as well
      • Moms, aunts, grandmothers, neighbors, friends can all become STEM heroes to our daughters
  4. Play with Your Daughters
    • Build LEGO’s, play video games, play sports, solve mysteries, and build things – all activities traditionally connected to boys
    • However you need to also play dolls, have tea parties, dance, bake, and do arts and crafts as well
    • Show our daughters that men and women can have all types of passions and can do anything in their futures
  5. Don’t Instill NEW Limits On Your Daughters
    • This is not a “one or the other” situation; our daughters don’t have to just focus on math and engineering – they can do robotics AND ballet!
      • Let children explore and decide their own futures
    • Dr. Tracy Fanara is an advocate for this idea: DXKmTZAW4AA17ow.jpg-large
    • Let your daughter build her own robot or design her own soapbox derby car – and if she wants to pause to put lipstick on or make sure her hair is perfect – why not?
  6. Model and Teach STEM Thinking Dispositions
    • Our daughters will emulate our own actions – we need to model curiosity, risk taking, skepticism, and problem solving. Check out the STEM Thinking Dispositions here…
    • Don’t give them all the answers, teach them how to find the answers to the wonders of our worldscreen-shot-2016-05-30-at-9-29-02-pm

Just Remember, the first and most important role model your daughter will have is you.


Vote for @STEMigo to Present at SXSW-EDU

STEM and STEAM friends I need your support! Vote for my session “Shifting STEM From a Noun to a Verb” for South by SouthWest Edu (SXSW-EDU) 2019 over the next month!


Abstract: STEM is going through a dramatic shift as industry and employer’s needs are changing at an exponential rate. The past needs of industry for content expertise have pivoted as information is more readily at our fingertips and there is a growing dire need for employees with critical 21st century skills. For our students to be successful in their future endeavors, we need to change STEM’s meaning from four siloed disciplinary letters to an innovative way of thinking and interacting with the world.