The Need to Connect on An Emotional Level With STEM Learners

photo-LarryBockBy Larry Bock 

Co-Founder of USA Science Science & Engineering Festival 

No doubt, the influences that move individuals into their chosen field of science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) are often as different as night and day, but one thing seems constant: most STEM professionals, in remembering how they made their selection, can trace that ¨A-ha!¨ moment back to a pivotal experience in their lives that connected them on an emotional level for the first time with their chosen line of work.

That moment for scientist James E. West, inventor of the foil electret microphone, came at the age of eight when he experienced a jolting electric shock while trying to plug a radio he had just repaired into a ceiling outlet. Strange as it may seem, that emotional episode was the one that inspired him to become an acoustical scientist. "I became fascinated by electricity after that, just completely fascinated,¨ he recalls. ¨I needed to learn everything I could about it."

For others, these pivotal moments may be sparked by episodes less arresting but equally poignant, such as something a teacher or mentor said to them, something they read, something they saw on a field trip, or a hands-on demonstration they participated in.

USASF12EM_4491That's the power of positive emotional experiences. These meaningful moments are captured and stored by the brain for vivid memory and, on an unconscious level, become key to enhancing learning, motivation and decision-making, says noted neuroscientist Antonio R. Damasio, M.D., Ph.D., of the University of Iowa College of Medicine.

Such findings are significant as we explore new and creative avenues to inspire and motivate more students in STEM. One thing is clear to me in this quest: We must begin connecting with young learners in STEM on an emotional level by exposing them to exciting, interactive experiences, inside and outside the classroom -- encounters that immerse the senses and touch various emotions. Which is what really thrills me about the USA Science & Engineering Festival, due to kick off nationally again this April.

The Festival, the largest science outreach event of its kind in the country, brings kids, teachers and the public up close and personal with some of the nation's most inspiring leaders and innovations in STEM via exciting hands-on venues -- proving one thing: science and engineering isn't boring!

The Festival's finale Expo celebration on Saturday, April 26 to Sunday April 27 at the Washington, DC Convention Center, will be a prime example of this. Did you ever think science and engineering could engage so many different emotions in one weekend? Here are just a few examples of how the Expo, through its dazzling array of presentations, will strike various emotions while immersing audiences in science:

USASF12EM_4008Adventure: You'll be spellbound while learning the science of extreme sports from some of the world's most daring ZOZI extreme sports champions -- including big wave surfer Maya Gabeira, triathlon athlete Chris Lieto, and kayaker Tao Berman. Plus you'll be captivated as Hollywood stuntman Steve Wolf takes you behind the scenes to discover the science behind TV and movie stunts and special effects.

Think and Ponder: You'll be moved by the thought-provoking presentation by the Innocence Project and the New York Hall of Science that reveals the important role DNA evidence is playing in exonerating a growing number of wrongfully convicted prisoners. And Mike Rowe of ¨Dirty Jobs" will enlighten you with a timely fact: skilled labor jobs are becoming some of the most highly-paid and in-demand jobs today in STEM.

Mystery and Intrigue: You'll gasp as Chris Hackett, America's consummate DIYer, demonstrates his secrets of surviving an apocalypse and zombie invasion! And the science of illusion and sleight-of-hand action with Apollo Robbins, the ¨Gentleman Thief¨ and star of National Geographic's Brain Games, will have you on the edge of your seat.

Inspiration: You'll cheer and shed a tear as Amanda Boxtel, an athlete paralyzed in a skiing accident 21 years ago, reveals how the emerging field of bionic exoskeletal technology is helping her to walk again. And meeting and learning from basketball great Kareem Abdul Jabbar how his nonprofit organization, the Skyhook Foundation, is motivating low-income kids in STEM will have you standing up and applauding.

Perseverance: You'll be wowed by the mission of actress, mathematician and bestselling author Danica McKellar -- known for her acting roles in TV's The Wonder Years, and The West Wing -- to help more girls gain the confidence and perseverance to succeed in mathematics.

USASF12M_5300Awe: Bill Nye the Science Guy will captivate you as he takes you inside the awesome frontiers of science through the dynamic hands-on demonstrations that have made him famous.

Humor and Music: You'll laugh while increasing your science IQ through the humor of science comedian Brian Malow! And the science-inspired music of two-time Grammy Award winner, They Might Be Giants, will have you singing and humming along.

Empowerment: You'll be fascinated as well as bolstering your level of science literacy when science advisors to some of the hottest TV shows today --Drs. Donna Nelson of Breaking Bad; David Saltzberg of the Big Bang Theory, and John Sotos of House, MD. -- demonstrate the importance of ¨Getting the Science Right in Hollywood.¨ Plus, increase your science acumen in football with ¨The Physics of Football¨ panel featuring scientist Ainissa Ramirez, and John Urschel, a math genius and college gridirion star at Penn State.

Undoubtedly, connecting students with such powerful emotions via STEM can do wonders to inspire the next generation of innovators.

Follow Larry Bock on Twitter @USAScienceFest:

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" motivating low-income kids in STEM will have you standing up and applauding." That's really great, but shouldn't one rather encourage low-income kids to have careers in fields which increase their income, such as medicine? Or the financial industry where we learn that bonuses go up, even if profits are down (… ).
When I was a lecturer, I remember a conversation with a very bright minority physics undergraduate student, whom I tried to encourage to go to graduate school, where undoubtedly he would have done well. he pointed out to me that -as first in his family to go to college - he'd have to provide for younger siblings and parents once working, and clearly, science with endless postdocs positions, engineering with outsourced jobs wasn't it; with a MD he'd be reasonably assured of a reasonable income.-- But in my leafy wealthy suburb, my kids and their friends in high school observe that parents in engineering or CS have to change jobs every so often, because of outsourcing, layoffs, and are unemployable after age 50; but the kids with parents in some financial business or corporate law can retire at age 45.-- But at least for a graduate degree in science or engineering one can avoid student loans by being an underpaid teaching or research assistant for a few years.