The limiting factor in the STEM pursuit

Scanning through the current news articles, I saw a real blast from the past.  On Dec 2, NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft fires some booster thrusters that have been unused since 1980.  Wow, does this bring back some memories.  Growing up during the climax of the space race, set me on to a career in science. 

One of my favorite television shows as I was growing up was “The Six Million Dollar Man.” A story about a former astronaut that through the use of space-age technology turned to solving the world’s criminal problems in pretty unique ways, and probably my true inspiration for my love of science.  

Today, we see many movies and television shows that use science in attempt to inspire young minds.  From the new Star Trek Movies and now series, to movies like “The Martian”, and from shows like the “Mythbusters” to “The Big Bang Theory.” Science and math have become cool again.

But, what effect is it having on our youth to explore STEM related careers?  According to the Pew Research Center1, U.S. students are internationally average in academic achievement in science and math.  As of 2015, seven out of 37 countries have statistically higher average math and science scores at the eighth-grade level.

Now, there are several possible reasons that Pew Research Center suggests that are preventing U.S. students from excelling in the STEM fields like blaming the K-12 education system, but I’m not sure that is the proper way to solve this problem.

I’m not saying that STEM education can’t be improved, but I believe there is much more than that. There are pockets in the U.S. where science and math education are elevated well beyond what we would see as normal, but in these pockets of excellence, the driving factor starts at home. 

A good friend of mine once said something like, “a parent can ruin in five minutes at the dinner table what a teacher can spend hours working on at school.”

I was fortunate that my father was a big fan of science.  Even though, he was not very educated, he always encouraged me to excel in math and science.

Today, I hear stories about students reaching a certain level in math and requesting help at home only to receive comments like “Well, I never could do that, and I turned out well” or “you won’t really need to know that hard stuff, you are only going to be a ….”.

What does that do to the mind of a once eager minded individual that has been pumped up and trained by some good teachers who still exist in our educational system? 

Ok, I’m well past my word limit for the article, so I’m going to close with one of my favorite quotes from an ancient Greek named Plutarch (paraphrased to modern words):

“A mind is not a container to be filled, but a flame to be lit.”

 Let us all be a lighter of flames, not a fire extinguisher.








– Martin Shaffer, Physics Instructor