STEMming the Tide


By James Ware

It’s hard to be an optimist these days.

The United States is mired in cultural division, dissension and downright anger. The Trump Administration has pulled out of the Paris Climate Accord.  Administration appointees seem intent on attacking our environment just about every day.  The Administration is trying to allow oil companies to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It is gutting anti-pollution regulations put in place to prevent the dumping of toxic waste into our rivers and lakes and the emission of toxic gasses into the air we breathe.

Yet, I remain hopeful. I believe we will see meaningful changes in Washington in 2019.  I also believe deeply in the creativity and commitment of our younger citizens. These youthful activists are increasingly applying their energy to environmental causes. They are also demanding racial justice, gender equality and gun safety.

The STEM Initiative

Perhaps the biggest contributor to this new level of environmental awareness is the educational initiative known as STEM, or Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. The STEM focus began with President Barack Obama’s 2011 State of the Union speech.  He called for upgrading science and mathematics education programs as “…our generation’s Sputnik moment.”

STEM skills promote practical solutions

Why is STEM so important? For me, it is the fact that STEM initiatives are not just about teaching more science and math courses. STEM’s goal is to integrate the scientific method and critical thinking into every curriculum area.  This includes history, biology, social studies and even the arts.

In fact, there is now a more recent movement to include the arts explicitly into STEM curriculum planning.  Some now call the initiative the STEAM program, because it adds “fuzzy” topics like creativity and design thinking to the skills students are encouraged to develop.

The STEM/STEAM approach is really about making science and math interesting and fun.  It does this by applying critical and innovative thinking to real-world problems. STEM students don’t just learn the periodic tables or conduct dull laboratory experiments. Their teachers encourage them to tackle significant challenges outside their classrooms and to develop creative solutions that actually can make a difference in the quality of human life.

Two STEM Successes

Consider these two examples of how young students are applying their STEM skills to solve real problems:

Microplastics

Melanie Quan is currently a sophomore at Los Lomas High School in Walnut Creek. Last year, as a freshman, she was the national winner of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “Patrick H. Hurd Sustainability Award” for her project that developed a simple way to remove microplastic particles from water using an electrostatic filter (for a detailed discussion of plastic pollution, see Brad Waite’s “Earth Matters” column: https://sustainablerossmoor.org/wp-admin/post.php?post=2446&action=edit

Ms. Quan described her project at a Sustainable Rossmoor members’ meeting last August. We were all impressed not only with the quality of her solution to the significant pollution coming from microplastics, but also with her maturity and her presentation skills. If she is at all typical of her peers, the planet will be in good hands when her generation takes charge of our future.

Styrofoam

And for a second example, take a look at this TED talk from March 2017 by Ashton Cofer, then an 8th-grader at Gahanna East Middle School in Ohio: http://www.ted.com/speakers/ashton_cofer

It upset Cofer and several classmates to see so much Styrofoam waste littering beaches and garbage dumps.  They knew Styrofoam essentially does not decompose. However, when they learned Styrofoam, or polystyrene, is over 90 percent carbon, they got an idea. They figured out that heating and treating styrofoam with simple chemicals would turn the trash into an activated charcoal filter that could be used to purify water.

Now that is a double win if ever there was one!

Ashton and his team won the Scientific American Innovators Award, sponsored by Google. Not only that, they have received several patents for their design.  They’ve been awarded grants in excess of $25,000 to continue their research and turn those patents into viable products. And they were only 14 years old.

The Future Is in All Our Hands
STEM transfers lab skills to address real world issues and problems

“Kids are born scientists,” says Scientific American Editor-in-Chief Mariette DiChristina, “They ask great questions, and we should foster their efforts to learn the answers firsthand.”

I find these stories both inspiring and humbling. We are fortunate that young people today not only care about the environment but are actively tackling such globally important problems. These kinds of stories make me an optimist, in spite of the recent reports that we are running out of time to prevent a global climate disaster.

However, the kids can’t stave off disaster by themselves. Solving our global climate crisis is going to take a whole lot more than brilliant teenagers applying their STEM education. We have much to do, and many miles to travel before we can sleep in peace. STEM is helping, but every one of us has to contribute our own creativity and design thinking to everything we do, every day, if we are to survive another 20 years.

Courtesy of the Rossmoor News, Jan. 16, 2019.  Email Jim Ware at: jim@jimware.com

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One thought on “STEMming the Tide”

  1. It’s exciting that Melanie Quan (mentioned in this article) will be at Sustainable Rossmoor’s final Earth Month event on Thursday, April 25 at 4 PM in Fireside, along with other youth climate activists.

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