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Forcing kids into STEM

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MAY 01, 2019

Illuminated by the bright sunlight, the campers alternated swinging on the sets or practicing their monkey bar skills. Some ran around the play structure, chasing each other without their shoes on. I looked down at my watch and sighed — the only hour of outside time for campers was over. “Come on everyone, let’s go back and work on writing our code!” I yelled.

That summer, I was a summer camp counselor. But unlike most summer camps where kids roast s’mores and hike outside, my campers spent their days learning how to code. Don’t get me wrong — I loved getting young kids excited about computer science. I just felt like getting kids into STEM so young was depriving them of developing social and emotional skills critical to childhood development.

I was always thrilled when my students’ eyes lit up after the robot they were drawing finally appeared on the screen. But as I watched them run inside to write a new function after playing Mafia on the tarmac, I couldn’t help but feel like something was wrong. Why were we forcing children to spend their childhood learning about STEM? That wasn’t supposed to be what childhood was about.

Perhaps I felt this way because I had so much time to interact with others and was privileged enough to explore the world around me as a child. I spent most summers shuttling between India and the United States. In New Delhi, I shared chai with relatives when I visited them and played dress-up in my fairy costumes at home. And when I came back to the United States, I spent my summers at camp, singing camp songs and making lanyards.

I mostly did activities that were hardly educational in the academic sense — knitting 101, making sushi rolls, etc. — but they were memorable. And more than anything, they taught me so many things. Camp was where I learned how to work in a team to successfully capture the other team’s flag as we ran on the wet grass. It was where I learned how to negotiate and communicate with others while we were “digging for gold” at a science field trip. It was where I became interested in solving problems while wrapping my hard-boiled egg in mounds of tape and dropping it from the balcony.

I wanted the kids in my camp to have the same chance. But, it wasn’t just the summer coding camp where I felt like so many kids were being pushed too early into STEM. I saw this happen for my little brother, who came home one day from middle school talking about all the math and science classes he needed to take now because the curriculum was shifting to focus on STEM. While I spent most of my middle school days reading on the grass with friends or painting on my canvas, my brother stayed after school to work at the 3D-printing lab. This saddened me — he had his entire life to learn about algorithms and technology if we wanted. I wished he would have felt encouraged and supported to do what I considered healthy and normal for a child, regardless of whether they were “academic.”

Even more concerning to me was the toxic push to force STEM onto young girls. In the sixth grade, I remember paging through the annual magazine my all-girls school released at the end of the year. I was surprised to find that most of the photos featured were of my classmates doing STEM-related things, such as building robots or working in the innovation design lab. It felt wrong in some ways, like they were plastering and appropriating this shiny image of a girl inspecting microbial cells to illustrate our success in educating young women. It seemed like being interested in coding and math was synonymous with this idea of success or of being a better feminist.

As middle school continued, I began to feel more of a sense that girls in my community were more celebrated if they were interested in science and math. While I wanted to spend time with my friends and watch television with my family, I felt like I needed to join Robotics or the Tech Challenge. I felt like I wasn’t supposed to be doing the things that seemed natural at the time, such as homework and spending time with family and friends. I wanted to re-read the mythology books in sixth grade. But I was subconsciously afraid of not being seen as exemplifying our school’s motto “Women Learning, Women Leading” because I was interested in something already dominated by women.

In the future, I hope that our world’s obsession with science and technology will be met by the understanding that children need to spend time being children. I hope that children, such as my students at coding camp, will be provided the room to develop social and emotional skills that will set them up for their lives. I hope that they will not be coerced into STEM just because their parents feel the need to “start early.” Instead, they should be able to ignite and pursue their own curiosity, whether it’s through putting mentos in coke or trying to burn something using a flashlight. More than anything, I wish for young girls around the world to have the freedom to do what they want. I hope that young girls, such as the current middle schoolers at my alma mater, spend extra time on their science experiment because they want to, not because they feel like they will be more celebrated as a girl.

Riya Berry writes the Wednesday blog on being a womxn in color in computer science and technology. Contact her at [email protected].

MAY 06, 2019