As an actress who has a Ph.D. in neuroscience and plays a neurobiologist on The Big Bang Theory, I’m often asked to give advice on getting students interested in STEM careers. My answer may not be what people expect to hear.
I didn’t always have the confidence to believe I could pursue an advanced degree. Science didn’t come easily to me, and in this sense, my experience was not that different from any student who is unsure about her ability to realize a career in a science- or math-related field.
I was fortunate enough to have a tutor who opened my eyes to the life-changing possibilities of a career in science. In my three years as the STEM education brand ambassador for Texas Instruments, I’ve seen firsthand how that special bond between teacher and student and a little encouragement can transform a skeptical middle school student into a confident future scientist, programmer, or engineer.
I’ve also learned a few things along the way about how to motivate students to pursue STEM. Here are my top three takeaways.
1 | Get Them Where They Live
While students’ obsession with social media makes it tougher to get their attention, you can also use it to your advantage to spark real-life STEM discussions. How do you design the next great social-media platform or build the next must-have gadget? These conversations are ripe for scientific exploration and show students how STEM applies to their interests.
2 | Add Some Razzle-Dazzle
To make STEM exciting and fun, look to Hollywood! There are countless math and science learning opportunities in students’ favorite movie moments. Films featuring zombies can teach concepts like exponential growth curves, how an illness spreads through a population, and how the human nervous system works. Superhero stories draw on physics, biology, and chemistry that even younger students can understand. Programs like STEM Behind Hollywood from Texas Instruments and the National Academy of Sciences’ Science & Entertainment Exchange provide free tools for educators to teach how science and math make movie magic come to life.
3 | Raise Your Expectations
I know from my own experience as well as from what countless students have shared with me: Teachers have a powerful impact on their students, especially in the formative years. Take Nicholas Lombardo, a former student at New Britain High School [Connecticut] and one of 500 students who competed to “win” me for a day as part of the “Take Mayim Back to School” campaign, which earned Nick’s school TI-Nspire technology. All of the submissions included wonderful stories, but Nick’s really touched my heart. He told me about his math teacher Mr. Keith Pigeon, who offered extra attention and sacrificed his own free time for his students. In doing so, Mr. Pigeon helped them break through learning barriers and work to their potential. He dramatically changed the course of not just Nick’s life but of hundreds of students’ lives and futures.
So there you have it. Just like they have in my life, Hollywood, role models, and science can intersect with fantastic results. Together, let’s pledge to get students excited about science and math early, keep the content engaging into middle school, and inspire them to take their own first steps into a life or career built around STEM.