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Early inspiration needed to create STEM literacy

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I came across a seven-year-old at a lemonade stand along a walking trail. He was selling the beverage – and something much more important.

His sign said “$1: Lemonade and a great science lecture.” I recognize a good deal when I see one, so I purchased a cool drink and enjoyed a talk with a young man clearly inspired. At age seven.

I spoke with the boy’s parents. Neither had a technical background and they struggled with finding new ways to nurture the boy’s passion for science. My message to them was simple: “You don’t have to know why the sky is blue to inspire him. You just have to point him in the right direction.”

In my position as director of a national security science laboratory I come across many people inspired by science, technology, engineering and mathematics – what we call STEM. As a nation, we will need more of them. Unfortunately, I am also aware of others inspired by STEM who would use that knowledge to do harm to innocent people here or abroad.

It concerns me that in the latest Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, American 8th graders were outpaced by nine countries in science and 11 countries in math. We have improved since those studies began in 1995 but still have work to do.

The problem goes far beyond the laboratory or the next generation of PhD scientists. It goes to the scientific literacy of our society: our ability to choose wisely when making public policy decisions on complex, technical issues such as climate change, a secure electric grid or pandemic threat reduction.

Our society speaks its will in the choices it makes, informed or otherwise.

Young people across New Mexico have just returned to school. There are three things we all can do to inspire them to scientific literacy, and perhaps, a career at one of New Mexico’s national laboratories.

First: Spark scientific inspiration in the children around you. Cultivate curiosity. Take them to the Smithsonian, or the BioPark or the Bradbury Science Museum in Los Alamos. Whet their appetite for science by introducing them to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.

Second: When the going gets tough, encourage them to keep going. Our laboratory’s Math and Science Academy helps coach teachers how to make STEM fun, even when it’s hard.

Third: Create an enriched environment early. Low- or no-cost resources are at your disposal, such as IXL.com encouraged by Santa Fe schools or the Khan Academy online. Place reasonable limits on non-educational TV or video games.

The simple fact is that a career in STEM fields requires an early start. For children who don’t enjoy and excel in math by the fifth grade, algebra will be difficult, geometry mystifying and trigonometry incomprehensible. A college major in the physical sciences will be out of the question.

The good news is, not everyone needs a PhD in a STEM field to have scientific literacy. We don’t have to teach children to ask questions. That comes naturally. We have to not stop them. Because when a child sees a question no one else can see, he or she may find an answer no one else can find.

I have only one regret about my conversation with the young lemonade-seller. I didn’t get his résumé.

Charlie McMillan spoke about science education at Saturday’s TEDxABQ conference at Popejoy Hall.

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