Kids have received the message: STEM is important. Now it's time for the next phase to fully integrate science, technology, engineering and math into their lives. So says neuroscientist Chris Forsythe, a retired distinguished member of Sandia National Laboratory's technical staff, whose research focused on using brain science to improve human performance. Today, he's president and founder of the nonprofit Brain Hackers Association.
"I've always believed in the hacker mentality," Forsythe says, "the idea that you learn by pushing buttons and poking things and pulling things apart—understanding how things really work, and as you understand how things really work, that gives you lots of opportunities for things to work the way you want them to work."
Eleven years ago, Forsythe would not have envisioned he'd spend his retirement creating youth STEM programs. That all changed when he and a friend began doing robotics with his then-young son. Those activities turned into starting a robotics club, which is still going strong. "In the process I realized I enjoyed working with students," Forsythe says. "I enjoy that experience and I started doing more and more and more, and when I got closer to retirement, it was obvious: This is what I should do in retirement."
I met up with Forsythe and four teenagers last week at the Roundhouse in advance of them pitching a plan for Teen Tech Centers to the Legislature's interim Science, Technology & Telecommunications Committee.
Forsythe has funding already for program pilots at Explora Museum and Nex+Gen Academy in Albuquerque via grants from Sandia Lab, Boeing and Best Buy. Now he is working with state Rep. Christine Trujillo, D-Albuquerque, to request $2 million in the upcoming session to start 16 teen tech centers around the state. These will target two rural communities: Raton and Taos; the small cities of Alamogordo and Roswell; along with two urban centers: Highland and Manzano high schools in Albuquerque. The funding would primarily be for startup costs, with each location picking up costs thereafter (and, Forsythe said when I asked, there's nothing to preclude Santa Fe from participating in the future).
As mentioned, Forsythe believes the younger generation has grocked the message about STEM's significance. "What we're missing, though, is bridging the gap between having an interest and knowing STEM is important and being engaged and committed." On any high school campus, he says, 35-40% of students will express an interest in pursuing both education and careers in STEM, but "when you ask those kids 'how do you spend your time outside of the classroom?' they'll say volleyball and debate and dance and list off any number of activities, none of which have anything to do with STEM." Moreover, students' interest in STEM decreases as they go through school, with a 40% likelihood that a student pursuing a STEM-related degree will not finish with that degree.
The teen tech centers, as envisioned, will be both environments youth can learn about different types of technology, but also places they can just hang out.
"The No. 1 priority is to satisfy social and recreational needs," Forsythe says, "but at the same time that you're meeting the social and recreational needs, you're immersing [youth] in technology."
That has been the experience for the students who came with Forsythe to the Roundhouse, who are part of robotics teams at middle and high schools in Albuquerque, experiences they describe as both social and educational. One of them, Forsythe's 17-year-old daughter Kasey, has been interested in STEM since her older brother's initiation. Now, she plans to pursue a career in biotechnology. "When you're on a robotics team like ours, you can see how the things you're learning in school are actually applied," she notes.
Plus, it's fun, say Rebecca and Anna Duggar, both 13, and both attending Roosevelt Middle School.
"It teaches you a lot about not just STEM, but how to be a productive part in STEM in your schools," Rebecca says. "You also get to learn professionalism, which is pretty awesome; it's the backbone of whatever we do with this."
Plus, Anna notes, being involved on the robotics team means you gain a community "who will support you."
Fourteen-year-old Benjamin Roesler, who attends Menaul High School and plans to become an electric engineer like his father, points out that the teams are competitive: "And that adds onto the fun; you get to problem solve in all sorts of ways."
The teen tech centers, Chris Forsythe explains, won't just be robotics-focused. Using the formula derived through the pilots, each site will decide its location and focus, which could be robotics, biotech, game development, virtual reality, cyber security, media or some combination therein. But ultimately, he hopes the program helps show kids STEM can be more than just a pastime. He recalls participating in a Global Game Jam (a team game-building event) in which adult participants essentially spent their entire weekend consumed by the STEM tasks at hand. "That's what we want to start relaying to the kids," he says, "This can be the thing you're passionate about, so much so you'll sit up until 3 in the morning because you have a problem and you're not going to bed until you've figured out how to make it work."
Beats binge-watching on Netflix.