May 3, 2016 / All Stories

Lighting a spark for STEM

Less memorization and more hands-on experience – often involving life-science pros – are making science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) more appealing, especially in underserved communities.

Children are born insatiably, deliciously curious.
They will watch, listen to, smell, touch and even taste almost anything they can get their hands on, voraciously exploring and experimenting with the world around them.
So why doesn’t every kid in school love science, which is all about exploring and experimenting?
“It’s probably because of how we teach science,” says Kemi Jona, director of the Office of STEM Education Partnerships at Northwestern University. “Science is taught in a very fact-based, memorization-driven way that takes all the fun out of it.”
Instead, “we should be trying to engage kids in scientific processes, doing experiments, analyzing data and building models of different phenomena. In other words, you should learn science by doing science," adds Jona, who testified before the House Subcommittee on Research and Technology in 2015 about how to get private companies more engaged in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education.

Learning by doing

Fortunately, new approaches to STEM education are changing the landscape. For example, the Next Generation Science Standards, already adopted by 16 states, emphasize learning practical scientific and engineering skills and such cross-disciplinary skills as critical thinking and inquiry-based problem solving.
“Companies such as AbbVie play important roles in improving STEM education, especially through partnerships with local schools,” says Christine Wallace Caldwell, president of Catalysis LLC, which helped the AbbVie Foundation develop its SEEK program, or Science Engineering Exploration Knowledge.
“Companies can make a powerful impact by providing access to working scientists, so kids can begin to picture themselves as scientists, and realize that their career tracks are much broader than they might have thought," she adds.

It's a mystery!

SEEK provides training materials and supplies that enable AbbVie volunteers to run 60-minute programs introducing elementary and middle school students in under-resourced local school districts to key concepts in science and engineering. Through fun, hands-on activities and an emphasis on literacy skills, AbbVie scientists and engineers not only deliver the program, but are also a key part of the development process, working with education experts and teachers.
The science program, for example, gives students a “mystery box” and teaches them how to use observation and discovery to come up with a hypothesis about what’s inside without opening it. They are given an empty test box, a magnet and different materials, such as rice or sand, and the chance to run their own experiments. The science program has been run by AbbVie volunteers in North Chicago (Illinois, U.S.A.), where AbbVie is based, and in Ireland and Japan.
AbbVie’s “Women Leaders in Action” employee group recently ran their second SEEK engineering event, this time at Neal Math & Science Academy in North Chicago. Students worked in teams to develop coatings for a piece of candy, and then tested those coatings in clear soda to see which would work best in the human digestive system.
"The kids are always a surprise, the things they come up with and the questions they ask," says Fiona Tranter, the AbbVie employee who helped organize the event. She expects SEEK will continue to grow, especially in North Chicago, which is one of the poorest school districts in Illinois. "As soon as you mention you've got volunteers and things to do, you often get more requests than you can handle," she says.
That’s because SEEK is exactly the kind of supplemental STEM program students and schools need, Jona says. “AbbVie's program and others like it help bridge the gap, helping kids see how these skills manifest themselves in real jobs.”

Watch the video: Learn more about AbbVie’s SEEK program, which helps students in underserved areas get excited about science by making it fun.

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