Parents Without Borders, produced with our partners at the United Nations Foundation, features influential parents leading programs and initiatives making a global impact.
In an era where cool job titles like “growth hacker” and “scrum master” abound, Megan Smith has everyone beat. She’s the Chief Technical Officer of the damn USA, which makes her responsible for ensuring Obama has his finger on the pulse of tech trends that shape the nation’s economy and culture. And, no, she has nothing to do with White House IT, so don’t ask.
Even if Smith didn’t spend 11 years at Google (which she did) or wasn’t an early alumni of MIT’s Media Lab (which she is), she’d have a serious stake in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education policy because she’s the mother of 10 and 13-year-old boys.
Smith is capable of talking about this stuff on a level that would fry your neurons, but she also has surprisingly practical advice for how parents can get their own kids excited about learning the skills they’ll need to find jobs with our future robot overlords.
There’s a growing drumbeat around STEM education at the elementary level. Given your background, do you see this as a great, big, “Yes!”, or do you view it with more nuance than that?
One thing that’s really important is that the universe doesn’t separate subjects. Parents need to know that they face extraordinary anti-tech and anti-STEM bias around them and they need to overcome that on behalf of their kids. I’ve never met someone who said, “When I was in high school, I didn’t really get reading and writing.” But lots of people have no problem saying, “Yeah, math and science wasn’t really my thing.”
To me, that is a failing on our part in how we’re supporting teachers. Most teachers have to teach in a really retro way. No one in this country would expect children to come to a PE class and have the teacher say, “Ok, everyone sit down and open your books.” Science and math, they’re really interactive and the better way of teaching is project and active learning-based. So, how do you help kids develop muscle memory and grit and curiosity? Science is really discovery — you don’t know the answer. We’re so busy teaching children the facts that have been discovered, we don’t teach them the scientific method.
“When you add a garden to an elementary school, it increases the science test scores by a significant amount.”
So, as a parent, what you can do early is just do projects with your kids. It doesn’t have to be a lot of set up — grow plants in your backyard. When you add a garden to an elementary school, it increases the science test scores by a significant amount.
Yes! You’re outside, you’re digging in the dirt, so you’ve got so much more engagement. It’s active learning. Even if you were a little bit afraid of science and math because of the way you were taught, just dive in. Role model how to learn something new and how to make mistakes.
As a parent, have you encountered individual teachers who implement this kind of learning in a way that you find inspiring or innovative?
One of my favorites is a woman named Laura Burgess, who taught our boys third grade. She has all this great stuff on her walls, and the sign with the largest font says, “In effort, there is joy.” Her goal as a third grade teacher is to have kids feel that. Whether it’s writing or a science project or presenting to the class, they understand that in grit and effort and collaboration, it’s a joyful thing.
At the Media Lab or Google, collaboration is obviously critical. With the increased importance of the Common Core and standardized testing, does that work against the concept of collaborating?
There are a lot of teachers who implement effective curriculums that have collaboration to them. One of my favorites at the elementary level is, when they’re talking about a particular subject area — let’s say dinosaurs or birds — instead of lecturing on each animal, they assign one to each kid. Then the kids do projects where they become an expert on that particular dinosaur or bird. Because of the social nature of kids, they will not only know everything about their projects, they’ll have bothered to learn everything about everyone else’s, too. My boys, they still remember in eighth grade which dinosaur each of their friends had in first grade.
That’s a kind of flipping of the classroom, active learning where the teacher can move around more like a coach as the kids explore the space together. It accomplishes the same thing, but you can learn it in a more collaborative way.
With all this attention paid to STEM and coding, there has been an explosion of products — toys and games that claim to teach kids to code or introduce basic computer concepts at really early ages. Are you enthusiastic about that stuff or do you prefer more traditional developmental toys?
I’m a fan of a mix of all of them. We’re standing here on the shoulders of Maria Montessori and John Dewey, who were all about children using things from their environment and learning from that. Take familiar objects and then start to move into mathematical concepts with that — play-based learning. The key is not to leave math and science out of that. That’s when it’s especially important to be aware of the bias around you that math is hard, math’s not for you. Math is for everybody. We just need to teach it in a way that each child can understand it.
“Women make up only 11 percent of textbooks. People have been systemically written out of history.”
The other part of this is that there’s extraordinary gender and racial bias around us and so you see that in the media. Geena Davis, the actress, was watching TV with her kids and noticed how biased it was. She commissioned some work with Dr. Stacy Smith at USC’s Annenberg School and they started counting who is visually in these shows and what are they doing? In children’s and family TV, out of every 4 characters only one is a women. In STEM roles, out of every 5 characters only one is a woman. In computer science, it’s 15-to-one. It deeply influences our children. Ask a kid to draw a scientist, and they’ll draw an Albert Einstein-looking person. So, you need to be aware of that as a parent because you want to make sure all the avenues are available to your children.
Looking into the future, as STEM knowledge becomes more and more central to elementary education, do you see a radical departure from what that education looks like today, or will it be more of a gradual evolution?
I’m not going to predict the future, but to reframe your question a bit, I think what’s important as a parent is to be pushing your children’s schools to incorporate active learning for science and technology. In math class, are they using fun videos to introduce concepts and connect the dots between this thing that’s abstract to children, to understanding that it’s a language. One of my favorite videos is from Vi Hart, where she’s doing the Fibonacci sequence with spirals. She’s a hilarious Daily Show-meets-math-and-science person, and any child can watch those videos. So, are you using those kinds of tools and techniques with children to connect the dots for them?
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Research shows that there are 4 things: One, if a child is able to try science and math activities and they understand it’s fun, they build confidence in their ability to do it. Two, if they understand why they’re doing it. Are we just exploring something interesting, or can I use this to shape the world in some way? Three, people like them have always done this. I saw a stat the other day: women make up only 11 percent of textbooks. People have been systemically written out of history. If your child is from a group that isn’t represented in science or tech, they need to see people like them, even if they’re not that well known. Katherine Johnson, who calculated the trajectories for Alan Shepard,John Glenn and the Apollo Mission, she’s an African American woman in her 90s. So girls, especially girls of color, would love to know about her. Grace Hopper, inventing computer languages, that’s an Edison-level American who most people don’t know about. So, just making sure kids know that people who look like you do this.
The fourth one is encouragement. That doesn’t have to come from a technical person; it just has to come from a parent or teacher, someone around the kid who says, “You have to keep trying this,” rather than discouragement or bias that could happen by accident. Verizon did a cool ad about a girl named Samantha, and all the messages she hears as she grows up around science and tech. So, just make sure you’re doing the opposite of what they do in the commercial.
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