STUDENT VOICE: We should start STEM studies earlier — and make science experiments more fun

This fall, my dad pointed me to the U.S. Department of Education’s new initiative, YOU Belong in STEM. I read about the program’s goal to redesign the nation’s STEM education ecosystem based on a new narrative focused on ensuring that all students feel welcome in STEM.

My heart raced because that is precisely what I have been trying to do with a group I started at my high school in Maryland.

In 2020, I started a chapter of Kids Are Scientists Too (KAST-WJ). Our goal is to increase young kids’ interest in STEM by conducting monthly science experiments at local elementary schools.

These activities connect high schoolers who are passionate about STEM with elementary students so that the older kids can serve as role models. We encourage young kids to believe that STEM is cool and that it is a subject worth focusing on in school. Instilling a passion for STEM from an early age is critical to ensure that more Americans can participate in our technology-driven future.

Admittedly, 2020 was the worst time to start anything. It was the height of the pandemic, and we were all stuck at home. Finding a willing elementary school to partner with or even respond to my emails took a lot of work.

Luckily, a local elementary school took a leap of faith and agreed to collaborate. Since then, KAST-WJ has conducted free monthly after-school activities at two local elementary schools for over 300 kids. The experiments we run include making lava lamps and designing two-stage rockets with balloons.

Our high school volunteers guide the participants through the experiments in small groups. The high schoolers then conclude the activities by explaining the STEM principles behind them, helping the kids to understand the “magic” they just experienced.

In addition to STEM principles, these experiments also teach our participants resilience, because some experiments don’t go as planned.

In recruiting volunteers, I have found many like-minded high schoolers who are just as committed as I am. We are all equally passionate about our organization’s goals. We brainstorm ideas for experiments, help each other get to the after-school activities and pay for supplies ourselves.

Related: How can we improve early science education? New report offers clues

The success of KAST-WJ has prompted us to think about expanding to even more elementary schools. Recently, a local television station featured our efforts and gave us a generous gift that we will use to get other high schools in the area involved.

Using role models to increase STEM adoption is essential and, in my experience, starting in elementary school is an effective way to help students believe that they can excel in these fields.

When I was in elementary school, I was always drawn to my science classes. However, many of my friends did not feel the same, as they were more interested in dolls and activities like drawing. Afraid of feeling left out, I turned my attention away from STEM topics.

I want the government to recognize the role youth can play in YOU Belong in STEM.

It wasn’t until seventh grade that I began to fall back in love with science, thanks to one of my teachers. I remember how brightly she smiled on the first day of school, passionately explaining what we would learn that year.

Her excitement never faltered throughout the year, and as we grew closer, she shared her experiences as a woman in the STEM field with me. This teacher became my role model, and my organization hopes to provide similar role models for the hundreds of kids from the two elementary schools we now serve.

I know from my experience that YOU Belong in STEM will make a huge difference by showing kids that everyone is welcome to learn about STEM.

I am disappointed that this initiative has received so little national media coverage. Nothing could be more important for our future.

STEM literacy is critical not only for our country’s economy but also to foster an informed citizenry. During the pandemic, more people would have appreciated the benefits of masking and vaccines if they had understood the scientific facts behind them.

Furthermore, encouraging all children to consider STEM as a career choice could dramatically change the trajectory of many young lives and families.

I am sharing my experience because I want the government to recognize the role youth can play in YOU Belong in STEM.

The impact of my organization may be small compared to what is needed. Still, my experience has shown me that there are many high schoolers out there who are willing to work toward broadening the number of students who are exposed to STEM.

With more resources, including help with logistics and school district support, youth all over the country can advance the government’s initiative and maybe even create their own organizations similar to KAST-WJ.

There are over 15 million students enrolled in our public high schools. Our country must create programs to recognize this reservoir of talent and encourage us to contribute bold new ideas for getting young kids to feel like they belong in STEM.

Megan Walker is a senior at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, Maryland. She is the founder of her local high school chapter of Kids Are Scientists Too.

This story about YOU Belong in STEM was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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