By Jordan Morell, City Year AmeriCorps member on the Wilson Elementary School team supported by Dartmouth-Hitchcock and Wire Belt
I was never a STEM kid. From 5th grade on, I would dread the next day’s math class the second that day’s lesson ended. I used to get so nervous before math tests in middle school that I would make myself physically ill, and just hearing the voice of my geometry teacher from down the hall would make my stomach flutter nervously. I’ll never forget the late nights I spent memorizing trig functions my freshman year of high school, only to bomb the quiz the next day. My senior year, I took AP Calculus for the sole purpose of receiving the college credit that would ensure I would never, ever have to take another math class again.
Science was barely any better. It didn't exist in elementary school except for short units on space and rocks, and neither interested me, so naturally I began to hate the subject. Science in middle school was so unremarkable to me that I remember absolutely nothing about it, and I entered high school dreading the fact that I was now required to take 4 years of it. In 10th grade, that all changed, if only accidentally.
I enrolled in an AP Biology course not because I was interested in the subject, but because my cousin was planning on taking it and I wanted to prove to my family that I was smart enough to take it too. Looking back, it was the best and worst decision of my life. The first few months of that class were torture—I couldn't keep up with the material and I genuinely felt like I was drowning in words and concepts that had no meaning to me. Around Thanksgiving, I remember shutting my textbook and vowing never to read another word of it; it was then that I actually started engaging myself in class. I raised my hand to ask questions that would have embarrassed me before, volunteered to draw out diagrams on the board, and truly began to take charge of my own learning. I grew to love biology—the fact that so many millions of interactions within our bodies and between our bodies and the outside world were happening simultaneously and had been since the beginning of time—that was fascinating to me. Everything seemed in perfect balance, and I was awed that biologists had figured it out so that people like me could learn about it. I ended up acing that class, as well as the many other biology, chemistry and physics classes I took thereafter (except Physics 142 my junior year of college. Never again.)
I finally started to consider myself a STEM kid the day I graduated college with a B.S in Biology. I realized that the most important thing my study of science had taught me was not how to perform titrations in organic chemistry, or how the exact structure of the Golgi apparatus makes it an excellent processor and modifier of lipids and proteins—though those are important. Science taught me how to think. In scientific work, it’s not enough to just memorize facts, you must understand why those facts have been proven true. To do so, you must have an inquiring mind and be constantly questioning. I’ve learned that it’s okay, in fact better, to fail the first time, so that you can understand where you went wrong and create a new plan to fix it.
In my work with City Year, I’ve tried hard to inspire this kind of thinking with my students. Even though there’s no set science curriculum, I’ve taught my focus list students to ask themselves why a certain answer is correct, and to think critically about their wrong answer and create a plan to fix it. I’ve taught them that getting a math problem wrong isn't the end of the world—it’s only a chance to begin again with a fresh eye and a new plan of attack. I love to hear my students say they hate math and science, just to see them scream in excitement at our after school robotics club when they've successfully programmed a robot using a scientific “trial and error” method. Even if they don’t realize it now, just as I didn't when I was their age, a love of science might take time, but it’s definitely worth it in the end.
There is one student in my class, though, that is particularly passionate about engineering. I first noticed her interest during a science experiment my entire class did before Thanksgiving. The students were tasked with creating a "Mayflower" ship out of a styrofoam lunch tray, aluminum foil, and masking tape, ensuring that it would float in water and hold as many pennies as possible before sinking. This student stood out among her classmates as the only one to both truly analyze WHY her first ship had sunk and make the necessary changes without the exasperated expression I saw on most of her peers' faces. Afterward, I encouraged her to sign up for our after school FIRST LEGO League Club, which she did, and where she now works to encourage the other girls in the club to get involved with programming the robots. I've watched week after week as she includes the most hesitant of participants in the robot project, clearly explaining how to program the robot and encouraging them when their first program sends the robot flying off the carpet. This student not only has a natural aptitude for engineering, but also a sense of perseverance that's so badly needed for success in STEM fields. I feel fortunate that through my service at City Year, I am providing this student an experience to uncover her passion and apply it, and am hopeful that she realizes she is a STEM kid far earlier than I did that lead to amazing opportunities in her future.