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Inspiring students to take on STEM

POSTED April 9, 2013 10:58 p.m.

Anyone tuned into science news has probably heard that the prestigious Intel Science Talent Search recently announced this year’s winners. The competition is an opportunity for high school seniors in the United States to win scholarships for their original science, technology, engineering, or mathematics research.

This year’s 1st place winner, 17-year-old Sara Volz, used her own bedroom to make trailblazing research towards cost-efficient, algae-powered biofuel. Other students’ truly incredible projects ranged from improving algorithms for robot movement to innovating breast cancer diagnoses, from enhancing water purification techniques to designing telemedicine prototypes for cellphones.

In Volz’s own words, “Science is such a broad and amazing field…It’s something you do. It’s something that you explore and create.”

But as impressive as the breakthroughs and achievements of these students are, there’s still no denying the crucial need to stimulate more interest among youth in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.

According to the 2011 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, American eighth graders rank 9th in math and 10th in science, clearly outdistanced by competitors such as Singapore, with 48 percent of its eighth graders attaining advanced-level mathematics as compared to 7 percent of American eighth graders.

What could be the roots of this issue? I don’t feel that it lies entirely in a lack of exposure, as it seems that an increasing number of students — especially here in Turlock — are gaining easier access to the resources necessary for hands-on experimentation.

I recently joined my fellow classmates in Turlock High School’s “Biotechnology Day,” in which I had the opportunity to try my hand at the modern tools and techniques used to prepare and analyze DNA samples. This comes coupled with the heartening news that Turlock Junior High School will be adding a STEM course next school year to its list of electives for students to choose from.

Clearly, it feels like students are receiving the vital exposure to STEM-related areas. Thus, I instead interpret the dip in the nation’s math and science rankings as a clarion call to inspire fresh attitudes in the minds of the newest generation. The task today hinges on simply sparking the passion in students to unwrap the mysteries of the universe one question, one idea, and one experiment at a time.

The host of challenges here to beset us is copious. Improving disease treatments and finding cures, dealing with the far-reaching effects of air pollution, developing models for energy sustainability, and maximizing resources to support the world’s ever-expanding population is only scratching the surface.

The solutions to these and other issues will not come from bombarding students with textbooks and exams, but rather from nurturing a generation truly eager to immerse themselves in the STEM knowledge that abounds. The sizable arena of math and science truly provides countless niches to explore and enjoy.

Cultivating this type of mindset can start with taking advantage of a program right here. The Modesto Area Partners in Science regularly holds presentations that provide locals of all age and knowledge levels with a unique opportunity to delve into particularly intriguing areas of science. In the two years that I’ve been attending these presentations, I’ve been able to learn about topics ranging from the dinosaurs of California to how weather forecasts are made to how art and technology are synchronized in the creation of animated films.

Anyone wanting to get a taste of what MAPS has to offer can attend University of the Pacific Professor Jim Hetrick’s presentation, “Discovery of the Higgs Boson Particle,” on April 19. The presentation will be held at MJC East Campus, Forum 110 at 7:30 p.m. Admission is free.

All told, there is no better way to spend a Friday evening than by fostering appreciation for the fields of knowledge bound to shape our world.

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