Self Discovery, Creativity Key to STEM Passion

By Zain Kamal, 2022 Governor's STEM Scholar Imagine a world where we taught STEM like the arts. Instead of forcing students to sit still and memorize equations to do well on exams, what if we let them pursue their natural curiosities and go through the process of discovery for themselves? You may think that lab classes provide that stimulation, but whether students are dissecting frogs or mixing chemicals, what can someone really learn when they're forced to follow a list of prewritten directions with a predetermined conclusion in mind? Ask a math or physics researcher and they'll rave about the beauty of their discipline. And yet, rarely do our students feel the same way in the classroom. Never do they get to experience the frustration of an artist, creative breakthroughs, or the feeling of being overwhelmed by an almost painful beauty.


It’s not like students aren’t capable of tackling more advanced problems. Over the past decade, we've seen big figures in industry and academia establish their own independent STEM programs that ditch the traditional, memorization-based educational experience for a more creative and independent research-minded approach to learning. From Google and Microsoft offering remote AI internships over the school year to universities opening up their biology and chemistry labs over the summer, these programs all believe in giving young scientists the tools to tackle real-world problems and pursue their passion to make a difference in the world instead of endlessly studying for exams — and it works! High school students with no prior research experience have written original papers and been published in official journals, all with a bit of time and mentorship. Who better to take up this task of inspiring the next generation of scientists than prestigious researchers who know from experience the value of learning to embrace confusion and failure as exciting opportunities to learn something new?


Although these programs have created an unprecedented connection between young students and cutting-edge research, it simply isn’t on a large enough scale yet. The vast majority of classrooms are still lacking opportunities for truly open-ended exploration guided by genuine curiosity, and it's actively turning young students away from STEM careers.


A 2018 Junior Achievement study found the number of teenage boys interested in STEM saw an unprecedented drop from 36 percent to 24 percent in just one year. With teenage girls, it's even worse: 60 percent who were interested in STEM as high school freshmen lose interest by the time they graduate. Even Thomas Edison, undoubtedly one of America’s greatest inventors, was told by a teacher that he was "too stupid to learn" because he didn't find the rote memorization of traditional classrooms engaging. It was only after he began to look for ways to pursue his passions outside of school that he fell in love with his craft and cemented himself in New Jersey’s scientific legacy. But we don't even have to look that far to see that the vast majority of American classrooms still follow the same old teacher “chalk and talk” format from decades ago in spite of an explosion in technological capabilities. So how can we bridge this gap between mandatory education and extracurricular opportunities?


For one, spreading awareness of existing opportunities is an incredibly simple yet important step towards achieving this goal. Local hackathons and state science and engineering competitions have no limit for enrollment and provide excellent learning and networking opportunities with industry leaders, and yet they struggle to get full enrollment because students are unfamiliar with venturing outside of the traditional learning experience.


On a more systemic level, the structure of mandatory schooling needs to change to accommodate more out-of-classroom experiences. For example, for nearly two decades, the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory takes in nearly a thousand middle and high school students to learn and network with successful scientists and engineers. Students regularly call it a life-changing experience, and yet many student participants are prohibited from attending because their schools do not participate. Similarly, Boeing offers internships to high schoolers but demands a large time commitment that many high-achieving students simply can’t balance given their required course load. Whether they’re partnering with schools to offer real-world learning experiences or funding teacher professional development opportunities, private businesses can get involved in their local communities to directly shape the STEM pipeline for young students. Students can seek out organizations that provide hands-on STEM experiences. The Governor’s STEM Scholars, for example, provides high-achieving New Jersey high school and college students with real-world research opportunities.


I know that these reforms may seem monumental, but change is necessary to battle the stagnancy that’s plagued STEM classrooms for the past century. As March is New Jersey STEM Month, there is no better time to take action.


Zain Kamal is a freshman at Rutgers University studying physics and computer science. He is currently conducting research for NASA on the magnetic field of Mars.