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Planting the Seeds of STEM


If you believe fostering a culture of innovation begins with nurturing America’s interest in science, technology, engineering and math – aka STEM – then brace yourself for some good news.

According to this year’s Lemelson-MIT Invention Index, an annual survey that gauges Americans’ perceptions about invention and innovation, 77 percent of teens are interested in pursuing a STEM-related career.

The positive findings of this year’s survey come on the heels of President Obama’s introduction of Educate to Innovate, a campaign designed to increase interest and improve performance of U.S. students in STEM. Educate to Innovate focuses on hands-on activities outside the classroom, which the Lemelson-MIT Invention Index revealed is one of the most effective ways to engage kids age 12-17.

Field trips to places where kids can learn about STEM (66 percent) and access to places outside the classroom where they can build things and conduct experiments (53 percent) topped the list as the best ways to generate interest in these subjects.

By a wide margin, teens said they enjoyed learning through hands-on projects. Note to educators: less rote memorization; more experimental teaching techniques.

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The survey also found that teachers play a powerful role in exciting teens about STEM – more than half of teens (55 percent) would be more interested in STEM simply by having teachers who enjoy the subjects they teach. Go figure.

Here’s another item of interest: Most teens (85 percent) said the wished they knew more about STEM in order to create or invent something. However, fewer than one-fifth believed that scientists contribute most to society’s well being and even fewer cited engineers.

“Many teens,” averred the folks at Lemelson-MIT, “may lack a full understanding of the societal impact that STEM professionals have.”

The bottom of societal contribution list according to kids: politicians.

The Lemelson-MIT InvenTeam initiative is one way teens can get direct access to hands-on learning and STEM professionals.

InvenTeams are teams of high school students, teachers and mentors who receive grants up to $10,000 each to invent technological solutions to real-world problems.

InvenTeam projects this year include a portable, human-powered UV water filtration device, a physical therapy chair designed to reduce muscular atrophy, and a temperature-sensitive color-changing roof to combat global warming.

“Despite the need for more hands-on educational programs, it’s encouraging to know that today’s teens do have aspirations to invent and innovate,” says Joshua Schuler, executive director of the Lemelson-MIT Program. “Introducing students to STEM at a young age helps them connect the dots between everyday invention and careers that can improve society and the U.S. economy.”

Editor’s note: This article appears in the April 2010 print edition.

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