Today, I received a wonderful reminder as to why I do STEM outreach. I opened an interoffice mail envelope to find a clasp envelope filled with thank you notes. Last week, I had participated in a middle school career day. I had three rotations of students in 25-minute blocks of time, hoping I could make a positive impression and perhaps inspire the next generation of STEM professionals. These thank you notes were in response to that day. I know that the students were obviously encouraged/required to write the thank you notes, which seemed partially scripted. However, many of the notes included very specific references to my interactions with them and some of students told me that they are now interested in being an engineer, that they want to be a pilot too, or that they want to work for Click Bond after they graduate college. Today, I felt like I may have made a small difference in closing the generation gap in STEM professions.
Middle school students can be hard to engage. I was fiercely nervous that I would bore them. Here are a few things I did to stir interest in the students.
#1 Question Sheet
The students had question sheets that they had to fill out for each speaker that they would listen to that day. I made sure to make some of those answers very easy to find in my PowerPoint. I started off the session by introducing myself, and my title, and then quickly asked “You all have a sheet to fill out, right? I think you need my name and job title. This is it, right here (pointing to information on the slide).” They students immediately started writing. I used this question sheet as a tool to keep the students continually interacting.
“What other questions on your sheet can I answer for you?”
I didn’t want to make it difficult for them to do their assignment. I wanted them to know that I was happy to be there and happy to help them with their assignment.
#2 Simple, Visual Based PowerPoint
I did not want to do “Death by PowerPoint” to these students. I had twelve slides, total. From the intro title slide to the closing “Questions?” slide, only twelve slides. I also kept
the slides picture driven, with minimal words. I made sure to let pictures guide my talk.
#3 Start with a Story
The story of the creation of Click Bond is a fantastic one and it was a great way to get the students interested in what I had to say. It includes an inventor having a problem with his airplane, coming up with a solution, and using that solution to help the military with their fighter jets. Obviously, there is a lot more to the story, but it is a strong way to start and get the students interested from the beginning. Don’t just begin by spouting off facts; give the students a reason to listen. Show them the reason for your job and how it all began.
#4 Bring Props
Tangible items bring your discussion to life. I brought in a wing tip with our parts on it and gave a very grade level explanation as to how our parts can work. I also brought in other examples of our systems and a demo board as well. I wanted to bring in things that the students could touch and investigate. I also brought in a da Vinci Mini 3D printer. I had it printing a mini jet all through each of the sessions. I explained how I use a 3D printer at my job to prototype ideas. Bring eye-catching props and you will maintain their attention.
#5 Free Stuff
There’s no way to say this eloquently. Kids love free stuff, and it doesn’t matter what it is. I brought in pens and stickers and anytime a student asked a question, they would get a pen and a sticker. As soon as the other students saw that asking a question meant receiving something in return, other than an answer, all the hands went up. Give them a reason to ask questions. Recognize when a student wants to ask a question but seems a little shy. There will always be a student who asks question after question, so make sure to let the quieter students speak as well.
#6 Ask the Students Questions
I tried to ask the students questions throughout my talk, to make it more interactive. Even if I knew that they knew the answer, I asked it anyway because it got them to respond. Every response they give is continued interaction and deeper engagement. I asked them about what interested them, such as what types of STEM subjects or careers were they interested in pursuing. If you make it more about them, they will stay engaged longer and actually listen to what you are sharing with them.
I’m not a professional teacher, in any way, but from my limited experience with students, these are some methods that have helped me immensely. I love being able to share my passion with students and I will take every opportunity that presents itself to continue to spread STEM awareness and inspiration.
If you haven’t participated in a career day, I challenge you to talk with your local schools and see how you can get involved in one. The joy you get out of sharing your passion with others is priceless.