On July 28, about 300 people gathered to hear 2015 Andrew Gemant awardee Ainissa Ramirez’s lecture, “Our Sputnik Moment in STEM Education.” The lecture was cohosted by AAPT and held during their summer meeting at the University of Maryland. It attracted high school and college physics teachers and students attending the meeting, as well as members from the university community and the general public.
Ramirez contends that America needs to galvanize itself around the nation’s commitment to STEM education (STEM Ed) and recognize our collective power to preserve the US position as a global leader in technology and innovation. For this to happen, the importance of STEM Ed and the belief in our ability to excel in STEM must be well understood, appreciated, and advanced—uniformly—by our policy makers, teachers, parents, and mentors. Ramirez calls herself a “science evangelist” because she believes that bringing this message to audiences across the United States and around the world will create a more robust and creative scientific community. She called upon the teachers present to help her in this quest.
In a land where the quick fix and short-term return on investment is increasingly valued, the effort can be challenging, because STEM careers require in-depth knowledge and innovation requires trial and error. “How many materials did Edison test for his light bulb before he found one with the right conductive properties?” posed Ramirez. No less than 1,000. But Edison did not view his numerous attempts a failure—rather, he successfully disproved 999 different materials’ ability to function in that capacity. In the end, according to Edison, “The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.”
This is the same kind of outlook that needs to be applied to all STEM Ed. We might take longer than we would want to understand a concept or to fully teach a concept to our students, but we need to have patience and confidence. Moreover, we need to propagate a culture of patience and confidence in the next generation. The current profile of our scientific workforce does not mirror the demographics of our country. Kids internalize implicit or explicit messages from parents, teachers, and peers. If they are told that they cannot do something or certain career paths aren’t open to them, many start to believe it. Some students face more challenges than others, with varying degrees of opportunity, race, and socioeconomic status. But these factors do not dictate ability at its core. Diversity is a key element to our nation’s overall success in STEM. Ramirez emphasized that diversity is nothing less than democracy itself, and teachers play a very important role in creating learning spaces where all students feel included.
Before Ramirez’s talk, vice president for physics resources, Catherine O’Riordan, presented her with the 2015 Andrew Gemant Award, for bringing the excitement of physics and its cultural aspects to the public through her lectures, books, radio and TV appearances, use of new media, and outreach events. The Gemant Award recognizes a person who has made significant contributions to the cultural, artistic, or humanistic dimension of physics. Ramirez joins many distinguished former recipients of this award, including Sean Carroll, Stephen Hawking, Alan Lightman, Abraham Pais, and many others. In addition to a $5,000 cash prize to the awardee, Ramirez designated the Jersey City Free Public Library to receive a grant of $3,000 to grow their physical science resources.
Ramirez coauthored Newton’s Football: The Science Behind America’s Game (Random House), and authored Save Our Science: How to Inspire a New Generation of Scientists (TED Books).
For more information, see the press release.