Attracting kids to STEM careers

The picture is from a test widely used in Project Scientist – an initiative to present scientist role models to middle school girls. It is considered important that, given a task “Draw a scientist”, a girl would draw a woman. I personally cannot tell the gender of the character in the picture, but I readily recognize the “I’m going to try science” stick figure from xkcd:


Probably it’s just a coincidence.. Anyway, my personal take on how to bring more people to science (and there’s no limit, there’s research to be done🎶, enough for everyone) is:

Just like everybody else in the celebrity/show business, our institute ought to throw a party, some sort of coctail reception with EDM music and high-res pictures from top notch numerical simulations. If an artist can make an exhibition and invite his friends, so that wine flows as a river, and event is open to the young partygoers from the area, and cover charge is small – why can’t our institute do the same? We shouldn’t encourage people to join, in fact, our work is so awesome that they are not allowed to join. They have to work their way up if they hope for a grad student position.

On a more serious note, the numbers “in STEM there are only 30% girls” are of course disturbing, but let’s think of them this way: only 10%(my guess) of people who have abilities suited for STEM research ever get around real research. The other 90% (maybe 94% girls, 88% guys which would explain the gender ratio in STEM) are lost to alcohol, drugs, partying, early marriages and dreams of easy life. *Here by “lost” I mean that the above short term satisfactions (which are not necessarily bad) take up all their time and distract them from the long term goals of their life. And they end up working in a bank or some other place that’d pay a price for their abilities.

In fact, every one of us has two sets of moral imperatives inside. One is the ubiquitous “do what feels good in the moment, be true to yourself, be genuine, respect feelings and value opinions of others , blah blah blah” – which almost everyone in California would sign their name under. And another is more personal “Will I amount to anything? Will I get a job? Will I have a family?” I feel like scientists around me take this questions more seriously than average American would. (More on short term vs. long term in earlier post)

So yes, sure, if you want to bring back that 90% of people who got distracted by what feels good short term, throw a party. That’s how new areas attracted young people throughout the history – think of 1889 World’s Fair in Paris, with the Eiffel tower. But maybe it is more worth to emphasize the value of long term commitments. We have to know the cultural/economics phenomenon we are fighting against with our outreach programs. Our actual good qualities are not being cool or social, it is being faithful and dedicated. We ought to have more trust that commitment can be a selling point and some kids will choose science because that is what they want to be like. No matter how much culture and environment pushes them to drink beer and do nothing.