How to Drive STEM Careers By Making Math Relevant and Fun!

March 29, 2012 Good luck to our friends “The Shop Girls” the only all-girls teen team at the Shell Eco-Marathon in Houston this weekend, and congratulations on today’s public radio interview, “Cars Built By Kids Show Future to Better Gas Mileage”  (you GO, girls!)

Shaping Youth is proud to be a Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) sponsor again this year, and this event exemplifies how to literally drive STEM careers into the spotlight by making learning FUN. “I learned that given a chunk of metal, the tools and the time, I can create an accurately and beautifully made car with rounded edges, holes in specific places and specific sizes…and the result was a  complete and running car, which turned out well…470 miles per gallon!”  —Shante, Granite Falls High School Junior

Now that’s some hands-on math! If you’re a parent like me grappling with moans of “Aw, c’mon, mom…When will I ever use math?” here are a few tips to whip out for cool career path storytelling to answer that question.

From animation and special effects as math goes to the movies, to pop culture favorites like fashion design, CSI style forensics and code-breaking cryptanalysis like a scene from a spy film, I can’t help but reiterate STEM studies need to be ‘relevant’ for kids inclined more toward the arts and humanities. How does a painter use math? What about a cook or a book author?

It takes a stellar educator to engage kids spectacularly using real life examples for math immersion…and it’s a rarity when one succeeds triple-fold, like Michael Werner, the Granite Falls High School shop teacher who puts his hands into hands-on programs to teach the pragmatics of building math skills.


Hailing from Washington state, the all-girl teens team of eco-racecar builders competing in Shell’s EcoMarathon this weekend (plus their co-ed Urban Autos team) are championed by the dedicated efforts of teacher Michael Werner who has made it his full-time mission (and beyond!) to amp and ramp enthusiasm for STEM by literally putting kids in the driver’s seat, in a car they had to design and build themselves.

I wish we could ‘replicate’ Michael Werner’s enthusiasm to split off and ‘go viral’ by osmosis, like a media science lab that revs up youth with relevant examples of how STEM fields are put to use.

The team has garnered prestigious accolades from the Aspen Ideas Festival as the students showcased their working car and as you can see by this recent press coverage from their local news teams, these students have set their sights on winning yet again. Shaping Youth is an ongoing sponsor  of “The Shop Girls” (love that naming zing) starting in 2010 when I’d heard they were to be the first (and are still the ONLY) all girls teen team in the race for fuel efficiency. (you can get involved in supporting them too)

Aside from the hands-on, experiential learning that marks EVERYthing we do at Shaping Youth, I couldn’t help but think of the ‘media angle’ of how we could ideally engage youth by parlaying challenge-based real life use of STEM fields and maybe even turn it into a hit ‘reality TV’ show of substance… as I wrote here in “Project Raceway.” 

I’m serious, Hollywood…Imagine youth competing to solve real world problems like energy efficiency with fresh thinking and passion, instead of vapid, Snookified trashy cues to kids.

Imagine having teen girls represent MIND over BODY to put forth media messaging that’s the real deal  instead of a body blitz of self-merchandising and commodification. (referring to Danica Patrick and her racy “Go Daddy”sexualization, who cheated girls out of a role model by ratcheting up even more appearance-driven ‘sell yourself for profit’ cues)

This weekend in Houston at the 2012 Shell Eco-Marathon as teams descend from Alaska to Syracuse, Brazil to Canada, the excitement on Discovery Green is palpable…now just envision what that might look like if scaled en masse via a mainstream media TV show.

You can follow it all on Twitter  or follow the hashtag #SEM2012. This year has some stiff competition as collegiate crews continue to enter the race trying to lap the others with ever-increasing promises of miles per gallon, like the Cal Poly students (BBC video clip here) who are striving for 3000mpg. (last year, the Canadian team reached 2,000mpg in a 250ml tank in an urban concept gas powered car!) Clearly, 2012 is anyone’s bet.

For the record, in 2010, the ShopGirls’ diesel-fueled car, Iron Maiden, got 470 miles a gallon in the competition,  placing first in the prototype diesel division and third in the safety award category in 2010…snagging last year’s 2011 FIRST place safety award and second place in the race…so yes, I’m beaming with pride that these students took ‘just do it’ to a new level, but my main focus of this piece is about the CONCEPT of applied science into hands-on fun in multiple ways to showcase STEM…and give parents a few new ways to deal with kids who have math anxiety (great Mindshift article about psychology of math anxiety here)

Consider the massive knowledge acquisition, skill formation and character development achieved through amazing programs like this!

From The Shop Girls STEM racecar builders/drivers themselves:

“…I learned I may need pre-calculus in my life. I achieved design and development of an effective electrical system, a fuel system and learned what a clutch was and how it works… Also, even when you are under stress and time constraints, do NOT sacrifice the quality of your product. I learned that patience is very important when working on a team.”  Maia, Junior

Then there’s Pooja Sethi, who was a sophomore last year, and has already been selected into the ’12 Washington Aerospace Scholars program to compete for a slot in a summer residency session held at the Museum of Flight (WAS is all about prepping students for STEM fields, using a NASA-designed, distance-learning curriculum) there’s a visceral, palpable passion in her description of her hands-on building experience within Shop Girls:

 “My job on the team this year was to do aerodynamics and build the body of the car.  Together, Sara and I designed and built the nose and rear. When the body came together and I saw a shiny, black nose and light blue rear I finally saw what I had done.  No one, except for Sara would understand the attachment I had to these two pieces.”  —Pooja Sethi (now a junior)

Heady stuff. Looking at this fabulous collection of historic photos of women scientists, it makes me think these girls represent the 21st century versions of same…These kids are more than engaged, they’re aspiring and admiring  ‘what could be’ aspirational opportunities for future careers…

You can’t learn that kind of self-knowledge about what your passions are by filling in bubbles in continual test-taking mode. That’s a “Race to Nowhere,” that’s for sure.

Today’s students may be heading for careers that don’t even exist yet, and yet we continue to drone on with boring pedagogy for teaching STEM studies.

We need to use media and applied science to make STEM education RELEVANT by exploring and discovering ‘what ifs’ and imparting knowledge in new, fresh and engaging ways.

As I mentioned in this post about Vanished, MIT’s Eco-Edu experiential game for middle-school STEM bridging online and offline elements of learning, we need to use the power of storytelling…tools like immersive scavenger hunts that require critical thinking skills,  collaboration, and problem-solving to uncover mysteries and advance the ‘game play’ (otherwise known as LEARNING) forward…

Another case in fresh STEM thinking?

My enthusiasm for Kalimah Priforce’s startup venture Qeyno, Careerspotting for Kids blends gamification and real life role models to impart new pathways and aspirational goal setting for kids (their ambitious Stem4Girls pilot project is already taking shape in conversations on Facebook, Twitter and social media circles, such as the PitchMixer event for women I attended last night, which was an inspiring jolt of joy juice to see ‘what could be’)

Appropriately, given the Eco-Marathon theme this weekend, I found this prototype of a career planning gamification idea out of Indiana that ties in nicely, called “The Drive of Your”  discovered in this Edweek article, “Career Mapping Eyed to Prepare Students for College”

The article further reinforces to me that we NEED the Michael Werner style hands-on educators of the world to impart the usefulness of STEM along with the Kalimah Priforce digital-platform startups to outreach and scale how to ‘think differently’ beyond robo-student STEM boxes and stereotypes to make these fields more attractive, exciting and engaging.

Another approach? Celebrity mathematician Danica McKellar claims we need to ‘sexy up STEM’ studies…and in a sense, she’s right.

But rather than embrace that literally in terms of sexualized/commodification of “Hot X Algebra Exposed” (catchy title, third in her series, but sadly plays into an increasingly obsessive/destructive hotness culture that’s gotten WAY out of control, even though several years back it was clearly smart marketing to cut through the clutter, seems it’s now feeding the same zeitgeist we’re trying to curb) I think we could ‘sexy it up’ by showing fresh NEW ways (and preferably some surprising ones!) that are pertinent to kids current worlds as well as their future career paths…

A quick view of this American Stem Education Infographic from (partial pullout above) should ignite a bonfire in the brain that reinforces the ‘why we need this NOW’ massive mindshift in our culture for future economic stability as a nation.

The time is ripe for using the power of media as the distribution channel for positive change.

Just as we can use Hollywood media to transfer medical knowledge en masse (such as the Grey’s Anatomy health research which I wrote about in “Kids’ Prime Time TV Cues Ingested For Better or For Worse” think about how we could impart STEM studies so much more effectively if we made it ‘cool’ with practical applications…

Again, examples abound…ALL involving some form of math or chemistry know how.

From green scene fashion on the runways to glass art and jewelry making, fabrication of sports braces, and the soup d’jour of top chefs…math and science continue to factor into the equation.

Now more than ever with technology and health trends enmeshing into sensor-driven feedback and mobile social gaming trends tracking everything from fitness to food choices, there are countless NEW uses for STEM in the works. Check out MIT’s preview of tomorrow’s ‘wearable computing’ for example…

Students who like fashion, fitness and new product development might be the next designers of sensory styles, like the new Stella McCartney Adidas heart monitor bra

Oh! And for those kids caught up in the ‘fame and money’ factor? Here’s a great site showing 40+ careers using math with descriptions, salaries, and as we used to say in advertising the “why to buy”…It’s called We Use

Think you don’t need math if you’re going to be an author or wordsmith? This site called “Math for Grownups” has an ongoing series called “Math at Work Mondays” featuring interviews that show unusual applications of math and STEM in a variety of fields like book editing and writing perfect for those aspiring Hemingways that say they’ll ‘never use math again’…

Again, the options are endless to spark an interest when pragmatics come into play.

Finally, as a former new product development/creative director myself, I always remind students to think forward in Wayne Gretsky mode of visualizing where the hockey puck is headed  versus where it is right now…

This Mashable article, “5 Exciting Innovations that will change computing in 2012” is a clarion call to anticipate rather than react.

That’s what makes the human race an ‘anything goes’ whirlwind of solutions yet to come.

Meanwhile, for the ShopGirls (shown at left today in Houston gearing up for the race) and all the mathletes out there driving in the eco-marathon race for fuel efficiency this weekend remember, regardless of the race outcomes, the STEM you’ve acquired as a life skill makes you winners already.

Congrats and Good luck! I’ll keep working on getting a STEM mini-series in the works…Hollywood, can you hear me now?

Related Reading on Shaping Youth/STEM Specific

Starting from Scratch: Making STEM Easy, Kid-Friendly & Fun

Wise Women & Alice 3.0: Geek Chic For Girls (pt.1)

BrainCake: Teen Girls Talk Tech & Worldchanging (pt.2)

DigiGirlz: Teen Girls Build Community Online & Off (pt.3)

Shaping Youth Sponsors She’s Geeky: WIT & Wisdom Flourish

Project Raceway: ShopGirls Build STEM Eco-Marathon Car

She’s Geeky: Techno Leaders Converge

She’s Geeky:Vlogging with Ryanne Hodson at She’s Geeky

Media Moms, Engineers, Purple Tornadoes At She’s Geeky

She’s Geeky and Proud of It  (My first Shaping Youth geekery)

Misguided Media: Space station takes a backseat to Britney?

Kids Online UNconference: Kaliya Hamlin, Joi Podgorny

Shaping Youth Interviews Girl Mogul Founder/Geek Chic

Related Resources for STEM fields & CTE pathways

WISE women (WISE=”women into science/engineering”) (part of GSA)

Brain Cake
Engineer Girl
Girl Geeks

Girls Are IT!
The Alice Project

Female Science Professor Blogspot

Wise Women–WISE Girls

Inspirational Women from WISE

Center for WIT (Women & Information Technology)
Nasa Quest: Women of NASA

Women in Engineering Org

Women’s Work (online community for middleschool girls)’s Teen Link Love

Science Friday podcasts. Brought to you by NPR.

10 commandments of Being a Geeky Girl in Geeky Guy World

Nerd Girls – We are a growing, global movement which celebrates smart-girl individuality that’s revolutionizing our future.

Mind Candy Clothing – cute tees that let you show the world how much you love math and science! This just in: They have a sparkly BRAINCAKE tee!  Order yours today and show the world you’re a BrainCake girl!

Justine Magazine – an awesome magazine for “teens – real teens – just teens”

Instructables – the “World’s Biggest Show & Tell where people share what they do and how they do it.”

New Scientist – A great source for science news and science articles

Girl Power Fiction and Nonfiction Reading Lists – These great titles show that girls can accomplish anything.

Engineer Your Life – An awesome site for high school girls and the adults in their lives (parents, counselors, teachers, and other educators) who want to learn more about what life and work are like for engineers.

GMSP: The Girls, Math & Science Partnership…“A program of Carnegie Science Center,  conducts research in order to inform its work – whether it is creating this Web site or the most innovative programs for girls possible.”




  1. Joyce Talbot says

    “When will I ever use math?” This question is so familiar, I hated math too when I was a kid. Making learning fun is truly a great way to help kids and students learn these days. Thank you for this interesting post!

  2. Hi Amy,

    I hope this note finds you well! I wanted to reach out and thank you for featuring our infographic on STEM Teachers. At, one of our top priorities is serving as a resource for today’s community of teachers so we appreciate you supporting our efforts! I noticed that your post currently links back to our infographic as it is featured on ( Would you please be so kind as to correct this so that it links back to our original post on ( Thanks in advance and please feel free to reach out to me should you have any questions!

    All the best,

    Jeffrey Roe
    Outreach Coordinator,

  3. It’s actually linked in a couple of different places (including the definition of STEM in the opening paragraph) but I’ll relink again if that helps? Anything I can do to ‘pay it forward’ as it’s an important and worthy mission! Thanks for taking the time to leave a note!

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