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Start with the Why

On fixing the lack of STEM demand

If you've found your way to this blog post then it's safe to assume you're on board with STEM education. You understand the world changing importance of young members of our society becoming literate in the areas of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. We live in an increasingly technological world and simply put, technologically illiterate students will find themselves on the sidelines of a rapidly changing global environment. So why are we failing so dramatically? Why do most kids dream of becoming a professional athlete and not a professional engineer?

In our humble opinion (after teaching STEM workshops to students from around the world), traditional educators have focused far to heavily on the supply side of STEM education; new facilities, programs, fancy logos, etc. to the exclusion of the demand side. We've mistakenly come to believe that the tail wags the dog, that newer and greater resources will lead to a greater STEM demand by students. If we build it, they will come? Wrong, they'd rather be on Instagram. STEM has a serious PR problem.

In this talk, Sinek illuminates a fact about how certain people, organizations and movements reliably galvanize large numbers of people towards a particular action. The key? Start with the why. Then the how and finally the what. For our discussion, the what are fancy facilities and STEM programs, the how are the actual daily actions of STEM students (building, solving problems, designing, etc.) and the why is the internal flame within each student that makes everything possible.

Think about your classroom, what percentage do you spend on the why, the how and the what? And in what order? Now you might say, yes but we have standardized tests our students have to pass. If that's actually a primary concern then you'll double down on the why. Standardized tests are cake walks for students that dream of becoming scientists and engineers. Your fundamental role as an educator (especially considering each student carries the sum of all human knowledge in their pocket) is not to actually teach them, but to inspire and empower them to become their own teacher. To create a spark that they can then cultivate into a torch, a torch they'll use to go to terrains you couldn't possibly imagine.

This reframes the entire classroom dynamic. The teacher is no longer the arbiter of truth, but a guide. Guide's are more experienced traveling certain terrain and are helpful for students, but students should ultimately venture beyond the well trampled path most STEM educators have trodden. You want a student to come up to you and say they're interested in building their own Stereolithography Printer (even though you have no clue what they're talking about: https://www.wevolver.com/littlerp.team/littlerp-resin-printer/main/description). And that is ok! You don't need to know all the answers, but you need to know how to train your students to find them. This is why it helps to have real scientists and engineers in the classroom. They've learned the hard way that in real world projects, you'll have to find your own answers. Google is your friend.

As you enter 2018 think about ways to incorporate the why into your lessons. Hint: every human intrinsically wants to be a participant in the world and have an impact.

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