From 9th to 12th grade, I was on my High School's FIRST Robotics team. More about that experience here.
After I left, my team stepped up their public outreach a gajillion notches - $11,906 worth of notches, to be precise - by receiving a very selective award from Google (of equal monetary value). My team's plan is to use the money to promote FIRST Robotics in the UK, by starting new Middle School teams - the idea is that these kids will become the High Schoolers that start or join High School teams in the future. Once we have enough High School teams in the area, we can have a regional competition here in the UK for the first time. In the past, my team has had to travel to the US every year to compete, which as you can imagine costs a heck of a lot. Having a local regional could encourage more UK participants, because let's be real - it's difficult to say "hey! you should start a FIRST Robotics team!" when you also have to say "hey! you have to raise the money to send all your team members across the Atlantic!"
More about this Google program: it's called RISE (Roots In Science and Engineering) and is an example of how capitalization rules can be manipulated in order to force acronyms to spell words (surely "in" is no more important than "and"?) In a nutshell, Google grants awards ($5,000 - $25,000) to organizations with plans to engage communities in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) initiati-
woah. I just made the connection between "stem" and "roots". the plant analogy escaped me before. anyway -
2012 was the third year that Google gave out these awards, and the first year that the company decided to host a summit for all the recipients. In May, I got an e-mail from one of my mentors, saying that "as part of the Google RISE program, we have been invited to send two representatives to New York for an all-expenses paid trip to a conference for RISE recipients. They are going to provide sessions of some kind, but are also interested in having attendees share and do presentations." Neither of the teacher mentors could go, so they asked if any of us (some other alums and I) would be interested.
Um. Yes. Absolutely. Soon, my friend George (a second-year at Imperial College in London, and another alum and ex-captain of the team) and I were signed up to go.
Fast-forward to September 12. I packed a tiny suitcase, went to an Associate Advising meeting, hopped in a cab to Logan Airport, stood in line at security for half an hour (apparently people really struggle with the concept of TAKING OUT THEIR LIQUIDS AND PUTTING THEM IN A PLASTIC BAG SO THEIR PURSE OR SUITCASE OR WHATEVER DOESN'T HAVE TO BE RESCANNED EIGHT THOUSAND TIMES), and flew to New York, marveling at the fact that I hadn't spent a single cent on the plane ticket. On the plane, I sat next to a Navy pilot, who evaluated the quality of the takeoff and landing for me. He promised to give me a helicopter ride if I ever find myself in San Diego. We did some New York Times crossword puzzles together; he was way better than me.
Google booked rooms in a really nice hotel for us. At 7am the next morning, we left the lobby for headquarters.
The interior of Google headquarters manages to combine a playground with a sleek, modern big-computer-science-company look. There was a jungle-themed room. A giant pyramid of Coke cans. Lots and lots and LOTS of free food. Murals. Bright colors. Very comfortable desk chairs. The computer scientist / engineer's playground.
I spent two days networking with other participants - brainstorming ideas for STEM outreach, describing my team in London, making connections, agreeing to work together, becoming absolutely astonished at the variety of programs out there. There was a team from Uganda, who run a robot-building camp for kids. Two women talked about their Little Shop of Physics, which travels around Colorado and neighboring states and runs a day of demonstrations and activities. There were afterschool programs for disadvantaged kids in Ireland, initiatives to get young women interested in computer science in Italy, an organization skyping in from Ghana...teams from the UK, from states all over the US, from Romania, from Germany. Laying roots for STEM all over the world. I got to meet these people - hang out with them, go bowling with them, discuss with them how to get girls interested in science, outline plans for a STEM profession reality TV show, come up with ideas of my own...I think I generated more ideas in those 48 hours than I had in the previous 25,000ish combined. Something about Google's layout - the way they encouraged us to brainstorm (standing up, talking, writing on sticky notes and slapping them onto a board, no "yes, but"s and lots of "yes, and"s, walking around the room) was somehow perfectly aligned with the way I get energized.
Google brought in speakers from non-profits, from other grant-awarding institutions, from organizations that conduct studies on young people in STEM. Majora Carter came in and literally moved me to tears.
I got 8 hours of sleep out of the 48.
At the end, I hopped in a cab back to the airport, and flew back to Boston. On the plane, I sat next to an entrepreneur who was just returning from a two-day conference in the Persian Gulf, where he met with politicians and journalists to discuss how the US and the Middle East can help each other. We discussed the influence of the media on the public's political opinion, and he encouraged me to start a company. He gave me a high-fived as he left.
I got back to Boston, threw my stuff on the floor, and passed out. That weekend, I got 24 hours of sleep out of the 48.
I returned with new thoughts on my role in STEM outreach. One of the most important tasks in the world right now is getting more kids prepared to become problem-solvers. I noticed at the summit that most of my fellow participants weren't STEM professionals; the vast majority have full-time jobs at their outreach organization. Nothing wrong with that - it just means that there are limits to the kind of information and services they can provide, because they themselves can't speak for the STEM professions.
That's where we STEM professionals and aspiring professionals can come in.
It's pretty clear that kids are naturally wowed by space, by rockets, by computers, by technology, by robots and medicine and improving the world. Nothing wrong there. Something DOES go wrong between that initial WOW! and a career choice, though - kids seem to struggle with making the transition to a sincere "I want to, and have the potential to, become a scientist or a computer scientist or an engineer." Part of that is lack of sufficient academic preparation. I think that another, though, is lack of awareness of what that job really entails. There's this idea floating around that having a STEM job HAS to mean standing in a lab all day devoid of human contact (not true), that it HAS to mean sitting alone at a computer all day coding until your eyes bleed (not true), that in order to be successful you have to be some kind of mensa (not true), that all those people are socially awkward and totally out of touch with the rest of humanity (false), that if you aren't obviously "gifted" from day one then you don't have any chance of succeeding (also false) - the list goes on.
I realized that, as I move forward in my career, one thing I can do is make an active effort to communicate what I do on a daily basis. I LOVE telling people about my research, and why it's the most awesome thing ever, but up to this point I don't think I've done a good job of telling people about my research JOB - about the act of researching, and why THAT'S the most awesome thing ever. Similarly, I think that engineers need to talk not only about the projects they do, and how those projects help the world, but what it's actually like to design or machine parts or whatever it is they do. Ditto computer scientists. What is it actually like to program all day? DO computer scientists sit around and program all day? The public needs to know.
Something else I realized - it's going to be difficult for convince STEM professionals to spend time on outreach. I don't think that this is because STEM professionals are inherently people-averse, or anything. The vast majority of science-y people I know LOVE talking to people about their work. My hypothesis is that most of them don't make it a priority in their work lives, because it's NOT a priority to the people who evaluate them. The culture seems to be: if you discover something cool and revolutionize the way we think about the universe, or find a treatment for cancer, or solve the energy crisis, you win. The path to getting respect is: work really hard on your research, be really smart.
For the sake of STEM, I think that we need to broaden our values a bit. Maybe a lot. The culture needs to be: if you discover something cool and revolutionize the way we think about the universe, or find a treatment for cancer, or solve the energy crisis, and/or make a sincere effort to reach out to the public and raise interest in your field, you win. All are ways to make significant contributions to the field. One possible path to getting respect from the community should include: not detaching yourself from public awareness. Being both a people person and a robot person. Being both an educator and a data analyzer.
I'm not saying that STEM professionals should be REQUIRED to do outreach. To be frank, not everyone would enjoy it, and to not enjoy it is to be bad at it. It's just that I have the impression that our culture doesn't celebrate or recognize groundbreaking progress in public outreach and educating young people as EQUALLY VALUABLE AND IMPORTANT FOR OUR FIELD as groundbreaking discoveries. If we can shift - maybe "spread" is a better word - our values, I think we'll find that more of our colleagues spend time and energy on outreach, because they don't have to worry about whether it detracts from their value as STEM professionals. And I believe that the field will benefit, as it becomes more accessible to, less intimidating to, and therefore more appreciated and valued by, the public.
What do you think?