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Five Reasons Why Your Child Won’t Be a Scientist (and What You Can Do About It)

Christopher Emdin on black life coahces

by: Dr. Christopher Emdin

Over the course of the last year everyone from economists to politicians have begun to discuss a concern that educational researchers have seen on the horizon for decades: the low numbers of youth who are engaged in the sciences and the need for increased attention to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education. With the release of a report from the Department of Commerce announcing that STEM jobs grew at three times the rate of non-STEM jobs, and offer higher pay, the fact that there is such a low interest in STEM is an interesting conundrum. If STEM careers are high-paying, and more available, why aren’t we creating more scientists?

In response to the issues surrounding STEM recruitment and engagement, President Obama has pushed the issue of STEM education to the forefront of the national debate. Across the political spectrum, there has been increased lip service to supporting K-12 science initiatives, transforming STEM education, and focusing on getting “minority” populations more engaged in STEM.

Despite these efforts, much research in urban science education has proven that youth are more disengaged than ever in STEM-focused classes. Students are bored, don’t find the topics being discussed as engaging, and opt for majors and interests in other disciplines. For those who are engaged in science classes, and are doing well in them, the nature of the instruction and the assessments often reflect more of an ability to memorize facts and sit attentively than truly actually engage in science. For these students, when they are faced with “true science” further along in their academic careers, they are underprepared for the creativity, analytical skills, and curiosity necessary to truly engage and be successful.

While the paragraphs above show that the future of STEM in the United States is grim, we need to target some specific reasons why this is the case, and figure out what we as parents, educators, and concerned citizens can do about it. In response, I have outlined five major reasons for why youth, particularly youth of color who populate most urban schools, are not likely to have careers in the STEM disciplines, and what we can do about it.

Five Reasons Why Your Child Won’t Be a Scientist (and What You Can Do About It)

1) We have instilled the phrase “I’m not good at math or science” into a new generation.

One of the most amazing discoveries I have found is that STEM majors almost always have at least one scientist in the family, usually a parent. They become interested in STEM because they see examples of STEM-minded careers in their own lives. For these people, being a scientist seems natural. However, in too many homes, the phrase “I’m not good at math and science” or “science is hard” have become part of everyday conversation. In fact, they have become part of the national lexicon. When children get this message, they internalize it, and start to believe it.

The reality is that all youth have the potential to be the “best and brightest” and can do well in STEM areas. A big part of the battle is allowing them to see that this is possible earlier in life. Instead of saying “science is hard,” consistently use phrases like, “science is exciting” or “I wish I had a chance to learn science again.” As adults, realize that your inability to do well in science when you were a student may have been a result of the way it was taught to you, and not your inability to do well in the discipline. Science is truly for all, and the best way to articulate that to your student/child is to say it consistently, and begin learning with them.

2) Science is taught in a way that is opposite to what it truly is.

In too many cases, science teachers see science as an exclusive club only for the “best and brightest” students. Consequently, the subject is taught to purposefully “weed out” students who may actually have the skills to do well in the discipline. This weeding out process supports kids who are quiet, take notes, and memorize well, and alienate those who think deeply, question, and are creative. In both of these cases, we are not likely to create excellent scientists. Rather, we are sending potential scientists to other disciplines, and supporting the others with skills that actually won’t help them in a STEM career. In response, it is imperative that the inquisitive and artistic nature of science is shared with all students.

When your child consistently comes home with science homework that is mostly comprised of info to memorize, or definitions to write down, remember that this is completely against the way science truly is. When this happens, find out how science is being taught in the school. Make a demand for hands on science, and most importantly, conduct mini-experiments and models at home. There are free resources online that can teach you how to do this.

3) Science has lost the “cool factor” and kids have no “science heroes.”

One major way to get young people to like a subject is to make it appealing. For children, it is much more about seeing something as exotic, approachable, and just as cool as anything else.

Unfortunately, we have failed in this department. Consequently, a great number of students are turned off to science. GQ magazine attempted to address the cool factor in science a few years ago by having scientists pose with rock stars. This was actually a decent first step, and is one that requires a more long-term focus. Unfortunately, black and white pictures of our “great science minds” that are very rarely women or people of color do not have the cool factor of the more modern heroes that other disciplines promote.

For the parent, it is possible to create science heroes in your home. An Internet search of scientists that are like your child (race, gender, background) and presenting them as heroes goes a long way. Buy a book the scientist has authored. Take a picture with them at a book talk. Make a collage or poster of the scientist and display it in your home. Redefine what the heroes are, and who is cool, and reverse the bleak future of a STEM specialist.

4) We don’t focus on current issues in the discipline.

In an age where scientific discoveries abound, where ideas are shifting rapidly, kids have no idea what is going on in the world of science. There is a general misconception that everything that there is to know has already been discovered. Consequently, youth see science as old, and not relevant. In response, I suggest that both teachers and parents have to focus on science as it is happening now. Use natural disasters, the energy crisis, and other topics that may seem more in the realm of social studies directly into science at home.

5) Good grades in science will not make you a scientist.

For many readers, the title of this piece seems upsetting, or not relevant to their child/student. Many believe that their child is doing well, is learning, and getting great grades. Unfortunately in too many cases, those children who are “doing well” are memorizing, not thinking critically and end up being successful with grades, but unprepared for college level science. The statistics of students who go into college and then leave the discipline over the course of their four years in college is staggering. In too many of these cases, high grades, and science awards in high school do not prepare them for the reality of what it takes to do well in STEM.

Being a scientist, and having success in STEM requires passion, resilience, curiosity, analytical skills, creativity, collaboration, and very often those can be fostered at home as well as in school, but are rarely reflected by merely a good grade in a science class.

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Dr. Christopher Emdin
Dr. Emdin is a Professor in Science Education at Teachers College, Columbia University and the author of Urban Science Education for the Hip-Hop Generation.

9 comments

  1. “Healing Hands” Dr Ben Carson demonstrates  what can be achieved with a little dedication  

  2. Here,here.

  3. this is one of the ways anarchy is given its genisis: a nation cannot grow if her children are stagnated in education and unable to see hope beyond their station in life

  4. The truth of the matter is that America continues to fail to address the issue of its inequities and failure to do the right thing, even if its to the detriment of the entire society.  The country is cutting off its nose to spite its face in terms of its failure to bring black youth into the fold in preparing them as leaders in the STEM disciplines.  We are currently suffering from a crisis level of unpreparedness in America, generally speaking, and of epic proportion in the black community.  There is a “non-profit” company now that is being funded to the tune of tens of millions of dollars a year called the US Science Foundation.  They put on science festivals in CA, where it originated, and now in the nation’s capital.  They shamelessly flaunt young black children for photos ops, and black volunteers to work the festival, but there is no funding offered to black organizations that try to become involved as participants who are independent organizations wishing to participate as black owned industries.  Even the few blacks seen in display booths work for federal agencies and/or white owned corporations.  And, when you look at point number three of the above article, it reads:  “Science has lost the “cool factor” and kids have no “science heroes.”  Fact is, there are lots of science heroes that black kids could have, including the author of the article Dr. Emdin, and our commemorative hero, Benjamin Banneker.  However, the social order refuses to support, honor, promote, and most importantly, fund, the efforts of inclusiveness.  Last year, I refused to be exploited by the USA Science Foundation’s festival which is funded to the tune of tens of millions of dollars each year, as the Founder, wealthy business mogul, and the sponsors refused to sponsor our effort with even one red cent, and wanted our Banneker Living Actor to perform eight hours a day at the festival for a mere $200.  This is when they are reaping tens of millions of dollar a year for this science festival and shamelessly exploiting black children by putting them in the front of photographers pretending to be inclusive, with zero black adult involvement other than as babysitters for the exploited youth.  This is the travesty of American greed and systemic exclusion of black people who continue to have the “illusion of inclusion” cloud their senses just as long as they are exploited as stage props.  The following is the e-mail sent corporate mogal Larry Bock, the former leveraged buy out corporate CEO, and founder of U.S. Science Festivals, declining participation in the festival as they wanted our small non-profit to pay for a booth, provide our
    Banneker impersonator to work on the performing stage for an eight hour day for three days for
    a total of $200.  Is this not modern day slavery or what when his “non-profit” is reaping millions a year to put on this horse and pony show with the only ones profiting are the wealthy.  See e-mail sent him below.  By the way, this U.S. Science Festival is the largest in the country, and this past spring consumed the entire Mall, Downtown area, and surrounding tri-state venues.  They are funded to the tune of tens of millions of dollars with none of it going to black stakeholders:

    From: Seatspc@aol.com
    To: biobock@mac.com
    Sent: 4/4/2011 3:53:46 P.M.
    Eastern Daylight Time
    Subj: Re: News from USA Science & Engineering
    Festival

    Thank you for the info. We will not be participating again this
    year in the USA Science Festival as apparently our
    organization
    is not qualified for funding to underwrite our costs. Everyone is
    entitled
    to make money to do their work it seems, except disenfranchised,
    under funded efforts like the Banneker Memorial. As they
    say,
    the rich get richer [and hold on to every penny], and the poor just
    keep on getting poorer. This will be the death of America.

    Apparently, the diversity will be reflected in the black children who
    attend with few to no role models looking like them, and, of course,
    the black volunteers and employees.

    If you like, you can remove us from your mailing list.

    Sincerely,

    Peggy Seats
    Washington Interdependence Council
    [Administrators of the Banneker Memorial]
    seatspc@aol.com
    202l.387.3380

    To: biobock@mac.comSent: 4/4/2011 3:53:46 P.M.
    Eastern Daylight TimeSubj: Re: News from USA Science & Engineering
    Festival

    Thank you for the info. We will not be participating again this
    year in the USA Science Festival as apparently our
    organization
    is not qualified for funding to underwrite our costs. Everyone is
    entitled
    to make money to do their work it seems, except disenfranchised,
    under funded efforts like the Banneker Memorial. As they
    say,
    the rich get richer [and hold on to every penny], and the poor just
    keep on getting poorer. This will be the death of America.

    Apparently, the diversity will be reflected in the black children who
    attend with few to no role models looking like them, and, of course,
    the black volunteers and employees.

    If you like, you can remove us from your mailing list.

    Sincerely,

    Peggy Seats
    Washington Interdependence Council
    [Administrators of the Banneker Memorial]
    seatspc@aol.com
    202l.387.3380

  5. I minored in Environmental Science in college ,but I have not worked in the field at all.I really was just concerned with various environments and wanted to understand the true function of our eco-system.the concentration also crossed urban economics,environmental racism,social engineering ,physic’s,psychology, and various other unique discipline’s I’m really glad I have this type of background…

  6. I did not  become a scientist because I ran into a science teacher that had an AWFUL personality.  Mean, petty and extremely unhelpful.   I resolved that if I had to work around people like him in order to be a scientist, I’d find another field.  As far as the “weeding out” process, I’ve found that to also be the case in the computer field, especially when it comes to computer programming.   This results in us having a lot of computer programmers who do not know how to interact with non-technical people. 

    The elitism in science and technology, along with the subtle racism, is the real problem.  Some people want to feel special and smarter than everybody else.   They are very Darwinian when it comes to learning.   All this does is create narrow minds.   Thank God there are a few people who can see what is going on and push through anyway, otherwise we’d have no progress.  The thing is, learning should not be something that we push through or endure, it should be a process that builds and strengthens the student.

  7. “Reasons Why Your Child Won’t Be a Scientist”

    Cause thugs and ignoramuses among the black community convince many young blacks that caring about scholasitic achievement is “acting white.”    Not something a “real” black cares about.   
    Of course modern entertainment is sending the same dumbing down message to white kids. 

  8. It would be great to have my child accepted into a STEM Magnet/Charter school here in Tampa; however, it appears that if your white, east indian or asian do you happen to win the STEM school “lottery” I have sent my child to MOSI every summer/winter and spring breaks beginning at the age of 5 as he expressed great interests in both Math and Science; however, being able to afford the private school education that actually offers students STEM classes throughout high school is not feasible.  I believe if the United states stops the cycle of overpopulation/immigration maybe American! kids here can get into the STEM schools and programs thus enabling our children, especially Black children, the ability to compete on a global scale!

  9. I found when teachers majoritly assign memorization task, it is due to the teachers own lack of abilities to decipher sciences beyond the established equations and rules already set out for them. They ask you to remember these equations without the ability to fully explain them. They go so far to punish those who obtain answers by different methods then they teach. That in turn is holding back the most creative of students. It is a systematic way of ensuring there is not any challenge to the status quo. So the “scientist” that get phds become a force designed just to reiterate the same laws without the ability to move science truley forward. Science is one of the most powerful grand subjects anyone can get into. It decides everything from how much land gets destroyed, to what resources we use, to what people get to eat. That’s why it’s a designed program to weed out those who question. The same thing could be said for most majors, but the youth must be taught that things will never change for the better until better people become the elders in the “higher educated” fields.

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