On Pi Day, Let’s Disrupt Our Narrow Notions of STEM

On March 14, kids and families are gathering in the Dallas Arts District, but not for what they typically come for. They will engage in activities designed to disrupt the stereotypical and narrow notions of what math and science are and who does math and science.

Two years ago, I partnered with nearly two dozen organizations in Dallas to launch the Pi Day Math Festival, a free event created by my nonprofit organization, talkSTEM, in collaboration with the AT&T Performing Arts Center. It is held in the Dallas Arts District, which is the largest contiguous district of its kind in the country. Interestingly enough, it is also the square mile with the greatest concentration of buildings designed by Pritzker prize–winning architects in the nation. Participating organizations include the Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas Arboretum, Perot Museum of Nature and Science, Dallas County Community College District, Southern Methodist University, University of Texas at Arlington, and more.

This year, we are holding a special panel discussion during the festival, comprising representatives from the district’s various arts organizations and museums, moderated by a radio personality from our local public radio station, Sam Baker, who will facilitate a conversation about how science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) is interwoven in a wide variety of human activities and professions. This panel resonates well with our expansive definition of STEM, which we see as being strongly connected to most spheres of human activity, including the arts, humanities and design.

My goal as a STEM community and teacher educator and as founder of talkSTEM is to broaden participation in STEM with a focus on underrepresented groups such as girls and low-income students. We are an official partner of the Dallas Independent School District, the 14th largest school district of the nation, which includes 158,000 students and 10,000 teachers and has almost 90 percent of its families classified as economically disadvantaged. This is a story that is unfortunately all too common in urban America. Yet, we need to reach our youth, and we need to foster STEM identity within them, so that we can cultivate mind-sets that are curious, exploratory and innovative.

The Pi Day Math Festival is just one of the programs that are part of a strategy designed to broaden participation in STEM. The festival is an opportunity to strengthen the science identities of all youth, especially girls, empowering them to pursue careers in (STEM). Women comprise only 24 percent of those employed in STEM occupations. The statistics for diverse women earning STEM degrees in the United States are even more disturbing: only 2.9 percent of black women, 3.6 percent of Latinas and 4.8 percent of Asian women.

What I want our young people to realize is that STEM is very much alive and embedded in their everyday lives. Further, eight of the top 10 jobs today require mathematics, technology or science, according to Cengage Learning. ((ßDON’T SEE THAT AT LINKED SOURCE.)) In today’s workplace, proficiency in math and science, together with a STEM mind-set of inquiry, exploration, iteration and reiteration are required for someone to succeed in the workplace. Every company, for that matter, is a STEM company to some degree, regardless of what you do. Even if you do not intend to become a nuclear physicist or biomedical engineer, we live in a world where data analytics, critical thinking and a basic adeptness in learning new technologies are embedded in almost any job we do.

What’s exciting is that there are nearly two dozen partners in the Dallas area—school districts, colleges/universities, museums, hospitals, nature parks—that are zealous about changing the conversation.

You might be wondering why my nonprofit invests significant energy into designing an afternoon in an arts district to boost a child’s love of STEM, as opposed to designing another science fair or robotics competition. Although these are fine things to do, they leave out far too many people. I’ve spent a good part of my life teaching science to students from middle school through college. What I realized is that, far too often, STEM practitioners are stereotyped as bespectacled, lab-coat wearing nerds or innate geniuses. I want to dispel the myths, so we can make science, technology, engineering and math more approachable, especially by those from underrepresented groups such as girls and low-income students.

Also, we find that by including unexpected elements, the Pi Day Math Festival is the perfect opportunity to highlight the human dimension of STEM. In our panel discussion we will have an opera singer, a choreographer, art conservator, museum curator and acoustical engineer all talking about their work, and how STEM fuels it. We also want these kids to realize that every one of the modern buildings in the arts district is made possible by STEM and that they are replete with rich opportunities for inquiry and problem-solving.

Moreover, the arts district is not the only space for unexpected and engaging STEM experiences. That is why we developed the DIY Math Festival, where kids and families everywhere can enjoy their own versions of the Pi Day Festival. By doing this, we hope to have created on-ramps for all children to see themselves as actors in this thing we call STEM.

The goal of the Pi Day Math Festival is in synch with the talkSTEM motto: to share, engage, and inspire. We recognize that the festival is not a one-shot deal. Our hope is that by sharing examples of engaging activities with the community, we will inspire other educators, parents and families to continue what we started. Together, we can amplify the effect. As we celebrate our third Pi Day Math Festival, we realize its immense success is a direct result of the fact that people from all backgrounds are invited to take a fresh look at the environment, explore new activities and adopt a new STEM lens.

So here is my call to action: as communities, let us look for opportunities to celebrate STEM in open and inviting ways with diverse groups of people. This way, STEM will not be structured for merely a select few but for all children. By using our irrational friend pi, I have started to develop an agenda for how STEM should be presented: through real world-based, engaging experiences. Whether it is Pi Day or Tau Day, inside the classroom or outside, I hope others will join us in the work we are doing to catalyze access to the messy, varied, creative, connected world of STEM.

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