Making Science Cool Is Hard To Do

At the Prosperity Blog, we’re your one-stop source for random efforts to make science cool. A few weeks ago, we chronicled the use of cheerleaders to make science sexy. So, it’s no surprise that we’re on the case when someone is working to make science rawk (that’s how rock stars pronounce the word “rock”, as in “let’s rawk out!”).

Now, of course, in its own inimitable humor, the Prosperity Blog is poking gentle fun at these efforts because we think it’s probably going to take more than a few cheerleaders and members of the band Poison to actually get kids to want to earn STEM degrees (although technically, “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” is a botany lesson, and is specifically about stems). But it begs the question: how ARE we going to get kids interested in math and science?

In the economic development biz, we call this “the pipeline issue.” That is, if we’re successful in our collective efforts to increase the number of high demand degrees awarded by our state’s four-year universities, we need a pipeline of students who actually want to get those degrees. And we know that this pipeline needs to get started at a pretty early age; if kids aren’t up-to-speed in math by 4th grade, most studies show that they’re going to have a very, very difficult time catching up. But then there’s the rest of K-12, and all its peer pressure and hormonal changes, so there’s the second challenge of keeping them interested once you get them through that critical early phase. No one wants to be called a nerd (believe me, I know), and studying math and science is often the province of nerdiness.

When Prosperity Partnership developed its higher education strategy, the third plank of our effort was “develop and implement a marketing pilot project to inform students, parents, and educators of opportunities in high demand fields and the relevance of math and science to these fields and motivate students to take these classes.” Sounds nerdy, but there’s something important there that separates it from just using social media and celebrities: the connection to jobs.

There’s a misnomer about kids and jobs that goes something like this: “Kids don’t think about what they want to be when they grow up.” That’s not true! It’s just that kids mostly want to be what they see in movies and TV – astronauts, spies, cowboys, etc. So, the best approach to making math and science cool is to teach them that – regardless of what kind of cool person they want to be when they grow up – math is relevant.

Back in 2007, we were part of a coalition that produced public service announcements doing exactly that. Among the cool careers were video game developer (sweet) and musician (rawk!)…not to mention weatherman (stormin’!). Even Steve Ballmer got in on the action.

Of course, the secret to good advertising is threefold: 1) a great message 2) delivered well 3) seen repetitively. And its that third one that is the most difficult, because it takes a ton of money. Whether it’s sexy cheerleaders or Steve Pool, the best ad in the world isn’t going to get kids to replace pictures of quarterbacks with pictures of engineers unless it is on constant repeat over a long period of time. Imagine if we spent as much on that message as car companies spent convincing us that we all need SUVs…and that they’re now spending on convincing us that SUVs are gone and there is a new breed of car called “crossover” that has no relation to SUVs. Hundreds of millions of dollars, I’d expect. So, making rocket science cool isn’t rocket science, it’s just expensive (like making an actual rocket and launching it into space). Until we find a way to do that, all of these disconnected efforts will fade off into the sunset like an aging rockstar.

One Response to Making Science Cool Is Hard To Do

  1. Bob Pearson says:

    I recall my involvement in middle school and high school. Someone saw an aptitude for math in my elementary school performance and I was set on a course of accelerated studies in math. I enjoyed the logic and challenges. Competing with what could have been a career in one of the STEM was a family environment focused on following my father in a career as an attorney. The tipping point for me was the impact of returning to school after summer break, getting my mind back into the math mind set; review and repetition left me wanting to pursue human service instead of STEM. I have been working in the Department of Corrections now for close to 36 years (prison and community). I have been following the Prosperity Partnership to help me guide others to engage in education, technical studies and employment but their self doubt and the anxiety in the community seems to be an almost impenetrable barrier and extraordinary successes are few and far between. Education and training resources for the people we supervise after release from prison or jail are very limited. Those individuals are motivated to find support, shelter, employment and treatment which challenges us because so many have limited education and work skills or experience. They don’t fit into this idea very well ut if we could impact the folks in prison as part of their preparation for release we will all be better off.

    Perhaps we should be mining this employable prison resource. Bring STEM education to the prison population. Groom those who show aptitude and commitment to gain degree that will fill a STEM need when they emerge from confinement. With the budget cuts the state faces, programs to train and employ people in prison or employ they when they are released grow smaller and do not fit into the STEM skills, knowledge and abilities needed in our community. Could private industry invest in this large potential pool of potential? Could it be done safely within the confines of the prison? Would there be a sufficient gain for the costs associated with this sort of philanthropy? If the issues are not something that can be achieved at this time in prisons, are these folks a viable replacement workforce for the people working in our industries who have the interest and aptitude to complete STEM studies while they work?

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