Bridging the STEM Gap

Bridging the STEM Gap

by Ferrell McDonald

Chief Marketing Officer, GoldieBlox, Inc.

How we educate our children continues to evolve, and that transformation has been happening at light-speed. Social distancing has become a norm, the global community at large is less inter-connected, and our children’s educations have become profoundly affected, if not permanently changed. And as our distances become wider, our cracks become larger and, I fear, so many more kids are falling through them. This pandemic has inadvertently brought our systems’ inadequacies and inequities to the surface, making it clearer than ever before that accessibility to educational resources beyond what is (or is not) provided in schools is going to be pivotal moving forward. Parents are seeing firsthand what they may have forgotten from their school days, that much learning isn’t always fun.  But does that have to be the case?  In critical disciplines like STEM, where it is already a battle to attract and serve underrepresented communities and young girls, we cannot afford to wait to supplement their formal and informal education in fun and engaging ways. We need to work together to help kids directly as well as to resource their educational ecosystems. Their future academic success and career advancement depends on it.

Our current Covid-19 climate has increased the distance between more contemporary learning styles and the outdated tools we still rely on to teach the youngest students. Forced into lockdown to learn from home, millions of students and their families were frantic to establish adequate home-learning environments. They were having crash courses in setting up new electronics, creating new habits, and adopting entirely new skills sets in a hurry. Many were dependent on school laptops or tablets which are usually in short supply, to say nothing about the availability and dependability of at-home Wi-Fi. These resource deficiencies have taken a serious toll on children who do not have access to the technology required for taking classes online. Even more pivotal for younger students: who will supervise the whole process?  Can you entrust an eight-year-old to pay attention to her poor overworked teacher on a screen for several hours a day while Mom and/or Dad are working?  And that is if the parents have the luxury of being able to work from home.  Many parents are at a loss: in addition to the normal chaos of balancing work, family, and finances, they now shoulder the additional responsibility of trying to educate their children at home. Too many are just trying to make it work with inadequate resources from curriculum to technology along with the struggle to structure learning for their children that will keep them engaged and maybe have a little fun along the way. And this is just trying to address the most basic education, much less focusing on bridging the divide in subjects like STEM that were imbalanced before the pandemic.

There are, however, some positive takeaways from our current situation.  We learn best when we are immersed in educational experiences that are interesting, meaningful, and interactive. In closing our physical schools, we have embraced the notion that learning happens everywhere, and it isn’t always from a textbook or a lecture or even in a classroom. Parents and other caretakers have stepped in to be educators, providing additional teaching moments that are valuable interactions outside of what is considered to be traditional education channels. We also have quickly learned firsthand that new or previously unnoticed channels can be fun, yet educationally supportive. For example, there is certainly social media to consider, which is more widely available, diverse in content, and useful than ever before. Google, YouTube, and even Tik Tok are STEM teachers now as parents turn to new channels to find supplemental educational content. When we do go back to “normal” schooling, our education programs will have to be dynamic to keep up with our younger generations or even society at large. Now, more than ever, we have an opportunity to actively integrate learning into life outside of the classroom and, more importantly, to adapt education to fit the needs of our children and grandchildren, who will yearn for a deeper engagement and consume at increasing speed. 

The observations and learnings from the pandemic can be a powerful catalyst for change. Resource deficits and more access to better educational support are problems that fortunately a lot of companies, institutions, parents, and schools are working tirelessly to remedy to ensure our children do not fall through the cracks. How can we all work together to support a child’s educational ecosystem? How can we bring together schools, parents and communities to provide education specifically in the STEM fields to best prepare them for future careers that we can’t even define? 

Many companies have been able to demonstrate the convenience and success of curating different types of online activities from a myriad of STEM content into one place. These types of multimedia platforms democratize information; they are libraries for anyone and everyone and examples of STEM resources that provide educational videos and learning materials outside the classroom. Many are free, easy to access, and adaptable for anyone who wants to learn or to teach. As a resource for busy parents, overworked teachers, and bored kids, this type of quick, fun, end engaging learning is one answer to the accessibility of age-appropriate STEM concepts presented in formats they already embrace.  They also represent a curation of trustworthy and non-politicized STEM content that is specifically targeted to girls and other demographics who traditionally are not frequently exposed to STEM learning that engages them in fun and unique ways.  But there is much more we can do.

As we put together these challenges of equitable access, fun and engaging STEM learning, and resourcing a child’s educational ecosystem, several solutions come to mind.  However, there is one idea that keeps resonating with me, and that is the re-invention of the public library.  I believe there is a fantastic opportunity to rethink the library so that it is not just a place for browsing books (do not take that joy away!) but that it also is completely reimagined to speak to kids and resource their parents and teachers in a unique, modern and fresh way.  I realize I am not the first person to have this idea, but why hasn’t it happened? And how can we bring it to life in any or all of the 17,000 US local libraries? My siblings and I grew up spending most weekends in our small local library and I am pretty sure it hasn’t changed much over the years.  It was a great equalizer. A place where it didn’t matter which neighborhood you belonged to or the financial status of your household, everyone went to the library. What if that safe and trusted space was transformed and completely modernized?  I am picturing an interactive inventor’s lab that changes every month, professors from all over the world beaming in incredible classes, rows of computers to use or take apart,  kids teaching other kids how to code, fun science games, competitions. I think you probably get where I am going, as the opportunities are endless. I believe this could be transformative for millions of kids and parents everywhere - a safe, fun, free place any child can frequent where they are able to learn key skills that are essential to his or her future. 

Early exposure and equitable access – particularly for girls and underrepresented communities – are giant barriers to STEM learning and we need to act. Companies like GoldieBlox, as well as collaborators like Intel and Two-Bit Circus have proven that the principles of engineering and science are expansive, not prohibitive. Be it a tech-infused, physical environment, or a virtual STEM-based camp these subjects are adaptable and can be taught in places that are as available as social media, as convenient as a kitchen, and as creative as an experiential tech pop-up. This kind of educational flexibility helps create formal and informal learning experiences that can be easily accessible and fun. Imagine a collaboration that brings together top technologists, education experts, the immersive experiences of Two-Bit Circus and the STEM + FUN formula of GoldieBlox to tackle these barriers.  And maybe this collaboration that resources not just the child but also their education ecosystem could be brought to life just down the street at your local library?

If we can bring together kids, communities, and schools in places that were created with them and for them, then we will make significant inroads into solving the problems that so many of our kids are facing around access to crucial STEM learning. 

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