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A high school student from Ms. Mayfield’s GHS science class demonstrates the science of bubbleology - the art of making your own bubble blowing solution. Young Brandon Oddonetto remains perfectly still as he is engulfed in a giant bubble; his sister Taylor waits her turn.

Why a STEMFest?

By: Holly Sow, Communications & Outreach Specialist with the Office of the Gila County School Superintendent

Did you know that the average cell phone has more computing power than NASA had when it landed a man on the moon in 1969? Today’s youth have more technology and free flow of information at their disposal than any generation before them. Already dubbed the Net Geners (born between 1980 and 1989) and iGeners (born from 1990 to 1999), the young adult and teen population is consuming new technologies faster than ever before. At the same time, their interest and achievement in the subjects that would allow them to create the next “big thing” is much lower than expected. Why?

Especially in rural areas of America, the number of students that pursue a degree in STEM remains very low despite attempts made by school districts to introduce the newest technology in classrooms.

Catherine Rampell of the New York Times magazine offers the following explanation for this phenomenon: “Most young people simply don’t come into contact with computer scientists and engineers in their daily lives, and they don’t really understand what they do. A study financed by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media found that recent family films, children’s shows and prime-time programs featured extraordinarily few characters with computer science or engineering occupations, and even fewer who were female.”

Moreover, many schools with limited budgets find it difficult to fund courses in computer science, engineering, or higher level AP math and science. Schools that do offer computer classes tend to focus on a curriculum that teaches students how to use technology rather than how to create (such as writing code).

These are the bridges which STEMFest aims to build. According to the Arizona SciTech Festival website, “Science festivals do for science what film festivals do for films. They offer activities and events that engage, inspire and spark imagination across entire communities.”

Gila County School Superintendent Linda O’Dell set out to achieve three main goals with the Gila County STEMFest: to increase student achievement by generating engagement and excitement; to increase parent and community engagement in education; and to promote a culture for career and college readiness.

In a recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center and Smithsonian Magazine, adults were asked the open-ended question, “what one subject should K-12 schools emphasize more these days?” Thirty percent of respondents said math; followed by 19 percent English/grammar/writing; 11 percent science; and 10 percent history/social studies/government. Overall, 45 percent mentioned some aspect of STEM. When asked what they perceive to be the main reason students don’t pursue degrees in math or science, 46 percent said students believe the subjects are too hard; 22 percent responded that students believe the subjects are not useful for their careers; and 20 percent said students find the subjects too boring.

On the other hand, a survey conducted among the nation’s teens showed that 55 percent said they would be more interested in STEM simply by having teachers who enjoy the subjects they teach. In April 2010, the Business High Education Forum (BHEF) published a working paper describing a “system dynamics model of the U.S. STEM Education system.” The model recognized that to increase the number of individuals entering STEM majors in college for eventual employment in STEM fields, students must be both proficient and interested in STEM. That interest can start before a child ever sets foot in a classroom. And if a child is interested, he or she is more likely to work toward becoming proficient.

Hazel Chandler of Arizona’s First Things First early childhood development program recalls, “My grandchildren, when they were preschool age, loved to play space travel. We would pretend to travel the universe and while doing so they learned the names of the planets, the relationship of the sun, stars, moon to the earth, space travel terms, etc. The NASA website was a great help to me for ideas and information. They loved to make up their own space travel ideas and now at 8 and 11 love science.”

She says that simply engaging children in conversations about science-related topics in a way that pertains to everyday life experiences will awaken the desire to discover. “Technological innovation is the knowledge of the future and we must help ensure our children are ready to create, discover and innovate.”

“All of us involved have been very pleased and deeply gratified by the response to the STEMFest and other STEM activities from students, educators, parents and community members,” says O’Dell. “Additionally, due to our initial successes, we have increased the participation and interest of individuals, schools, and other groups from both within the area and around the state. It is my goal to continue expanding STEM-related activities in our schools and communities, and to attract an ever-growing cadre of those interested in supporting these efforts.”

If it takes a village to raise a child, this grassroots collaboration that makes up STEMFest serves as the valuable tangent point where education meets opportunity, where fun overcomes fear, where reality begets innovation, and where crazy ideas take root into visions.

“I believe we are succeeding in our goal,” says O’Dell, “to increase awareness and understanding about the importance of high expectations for student achievement and the need for increased focus on STEM subjects to support students’ future success in college, the workplace – and life!”

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