Why I teach STEM

by Bradley Knockel

I have come to strongly care to advance STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). I want to share my experiences that caused me to care so deeply. As a young person, my motivations were mostly internal. As an adult, I have become aware of many important reasons for a society to care about STEM, and some of my youthful ideas ended up being naive.

The past

As a child, I loved reading, baseball, recess, computer games, and logic puzzles. Math was my favorite subject because it was like a game. For my middle-school science-fair projects, I chose to test various mathematical relationships via the laws of physics (such as rolling various jars or heat transfer) instead of the standard more practical ideas. My parents grew up in small towns that they could leave (escape?) because of ROTC or going to nursing school, so they knew the importance of education and instilled those values in me and my brother.

In high school, I did various things including martial arts, veganism, frequent Hacky Sack wars, Bible studies, and playing classical piano. I grew a distrust for English class because a student could reach incorrect conclusions using "good" grammar and rhetoric and get a good grade, whereas I could write about very interesting things and try to reach correct conclusions, and no one cared. I was too independent to like the assemblies, binder checks, being told which books to read, etc. that high school had to offer, and I looked forward to college. My love of math continued, and I started writing fun programs for my calculator, but I certainly wasn't wanting to join any STEM clubs, be a gamer, or identify as a nerd. In my thought life, I became very interested in working out the fundamental structure of society, the universe, the brain, and life's purpose, though I wasn't yet very good at discerning good science from junk ideas.

For college, my parents thought that engineering or a tech school would be a good fit for me, but I was never impressed by the go-karts, robot arms, lasers, etc. that these students were so amused by (though I like them now many years later). I immediately fell in love with physics instead. Physics is math come to life allowing me to figure out some of the fundamental structure of the world. Unlike in high school, people who want to learn can learn a lot in college, and I acquired ideas, beliefs, and understanding based on human knowledge. Wikipedia, Skype, YouTube, Facebook, etc. were starting to get popular, and I fell in love with computers and the amazing new power of the Internet, which I believed would continue to transform the world in more ways than it has. Computers were a fun hobby that I taught myself. I officially became a nerd, but I also played tennis, bicycled frequently, and became interested in watching diverse movies.

I had some lofty goals of being a theoretical physicist who comes to deeply understand the universe to figure out some important things. In graduate school, I learned very well how scientific research works to help me much better discern good science from junk ideas. The ability to do research ended up being a life skill I highly value, allowing me to get to the bottom of complicated things in the world. By getting paid to do research as a student, I also learned that STEM careers have money, unlike fine arts or literature. I much enjoyed being a student and learning about general relativity, particle physics, and the search for dark matter, though I was hardly motivated to do the required research. Doing research for several years was somewhat fun because I could use my computer coding skills!

When scientists try to share their passions with people, they often inadvertently offend. Scientists value facts and explanations and can be frustrated by not getting quickly to the point, but the human brain is not naturally convinced by facts, and explanations can come across as insulting. Scientists must instead slow down and use stories and emotion to inspire people to care to learn the facts. I normally don't talk much about myself. It seems vain, I don't like dwelling on the past, I don't value self description because most people think they are right, and I'd rather learn about other people who are more focused on STEM or who do something completely different than me. I am writing about myself in an effort to share my passion for STEM to more than just STEM people.

Where I want the future to go

I have been teaching STEM in various forms ever since I was 19 years old. I enjoy teaching much more than doing scientific research. Seeing people learn about science is great. The final straw that got me passionate about teaching STEM wasn't just the internal motivators—enjoying students and enjoying the interesting subject—but learning about society and seeing how important STEM is for the country and world! I have a dream of a United States that doesn't need to fear immigrants taking menial jobs because trade schools are so full of educating citizens to fill the many in-demand jobs needed to take our country into the future (the other part of the solution is allowing qualified people to immigrate easily like how Canada does it). Unlike the current United States that is in great danger of not being able to compete with countries like China and India in decades to come, I dream of a United States that invests in the technologies and cures of tomorrow so that we can help lead the future. In this country, we won't need to worry about clinging to old jobs like mining coal when we can educate coal miners to, for example, install wind turbines, which would also help protect the planet! (If miners are unwilling, let's cut our losses and bring people from China over to do it.) Having scientists and engineers develop new sustainable technologies is an urgent issue. Unlike professional sports, anyone can do professional STEM! All of the highest paying jobs are in STEM or medicine (except for some business and law jobs).

Most people will not have STEM careers. But we all will live in an ever more technologically advanced world, and there are many long-term consequences to our present actions. To make things more interesting, this modern world has anti-vaxxers, manmade-climate-change deniers, flat-Earthers, anti-GMO activists, alternative-medicine, astrology, evolution deniers, etc. I know that trying to explain the truth convinces no one. My hope is to make my general physics class interesting so that people are inspired and curious to learn more about science throughout their lives instead of being afraid of science. Teaching physics is a great opportunity to show students how their common sense—a very useful and important trait—repeatedly predicts the wrong things and that logical analysis is much more accurate. I hope this will prepare people to trust the warnings and work done by scientific experts. By enthusiastically answering any student question, I want to show students that scientists dislike bad ideas, but never a person who is working to remove bad ideas (all living people are undergoing that process)—though I must admit to making fun of flat-Earthers as a group. By not focusing on memorization but requiring a higher understanding, I really hope that, instead of just confusing everyone, I am preparing people to question their beliefs and actions throughout life. I hope.

A country is only as strong as its people, and I keep seeing that various problems cannot be fixed until the culture is fixed. I am still regularly saddened by how many people in the United States have learned helplessness, so they care little to learn sometimes acting like they know everything they need. Instead of planning and making goals to be the best at whatever they want to be, they are happy to be the least that they have to be. People need motivation! A powerful way to fix culture is to fix education and to get everyone motivated to eventually get at least a high school diploma or equivalent so that they can be an informed participant of society. This basic diploma should include writing, physical education, art, etc. To accomplish this, science shows us that we must pay teachers more, give all children preschool, have smaller class sizes, and give teachers autonomy to teach diverse students. In my opinion, we needed this done 20 years ago, but I can settle for immediately. To add to this, in my opinion, we should fire the uncommon teacher who makes a student feel bad for asking a question (this only works if we pay teachers more).

Is the United States listening to the science of how to improve education and society? Of course not because our probably-well-meaning culture does not know that you are supposed to. Money is going to putting out the fires of a confused culture and implementing standards in a rigid short-sighted way ("teaching to the test" causes students to memorize instead of to understand and learn to solve problems). The bureaucrats that put out the fires and administer tests take home the largest paychecks. Please research all of these things to learn about all the complexities of the issues! Many other interconnected problems such as the prison system and poverty have similar known solutions that save money in the long term. Student success is highly correlated to parental income, so income inequality is another important issue that must be addressed! Until poverty in the US is addressed on a systemic level, the US will have to spend much more on education than any other country as educators must work to satisfy the basic needs of its students, which must be met before a student can even start to be motivated.

As a teacher, I clearly see that the system favors the winners (no surprise!). The best performing students enjoy smaller class sizes, better teachers, more resources, and more administrator support. Having taught these classes, I can clearly see that these students don't need these resources. When 40 motivated AP students are (rarely) jammed in a room, there is no drop in performance compared to 20 students. However, if 40 needy unmotivated students are (regularly) jammed in a room, there is significantly worse performance compared to 20. To prevent the many harms of a society made of uneducated people, resources must go where they are needed. Of course, choices must exist—AP, clubs, electives, a few specialized magnet/charter schools, etc.—but the choice to be in a smaller class with the resources you need must also be readily available.

In the United States, whether or not to have school choice is a huge political issue. Science gives no clear answer for whether the pros outweigh the cons. Certainly giving students the choice to participate in AP classes, IB classes, dual credit, electives, and clubs is crucial, so should we allow families to choose schools based on student performance? Let's stop talking about irrelevant things like ideologically driven vouchers when the data-backed solution is simple: put the resources where they are needed. I love teaching AP, IB, and STEM clubs, and I'd also love to be flooded with students and no resources in these (they don't need resources)! Honestly, I do not love teaching the most needy high-school classes in the current system that puts teachers in a tricky situation by not giving them the necessary resources.

After all this thinking about why teaching STEM is so important, am I making a difference in at least a few people's lives? Especially when I have a student two years in a row, I can be lucky to see when a student finally understands how to learn and think analytically. Even if I don't see the growth of the knowledge seeds in the short time I have with students, I hope to make some difference! Regardless, I certainly enjoy the many things and people I encounter along the way.