A Visit from the STEM Squad

March 18th, 2022. By Audrey Tam '22

From the psychology of zombie apocalypses to Carl Sagan’s call for informed voting, hear your favorite STEM teachers at SI reflect on the past, present, and future of their respective disciplines-- as well as their personal journeys into STEM.

You might think of dreams as what people do when they sleep, but Google’s second definition also describes our theme as “a cherished aspiration, ambition, or ideal”. In lieu of this, The Apogee Report has gathered insights from SI staff about their own experiences with aspirations, ambitions, and ideals.

From the psychology of zombie apocalypses to Carl Sagan’s call for informed voting, your favorite STEM teachers reflect on the past, present, and future of their respective disciplines and on their personal journeys below.

*A very special thanks to all the teachers who participated!*

Q1: What’s your favorite aspect of your STEM field? What about it inspires or challenges you?

Mr. Joo (Science - Psychology)

“[T]here are a lot of studies that are cited in introductory textbooks that have not been replicated, meaning, when the methods aka the instructions are followed, the same results are not there… I love the fact that psychology allows for the fact-checkers, the people who pay attention to detail, and the critics and skeptics to make sure the "truthiness" of scientific claims.”

Ms. McGovern (Science - Chemistry)

“[Students] come to the course with very little information, vocabulary, lab skills, and math-meets-science skills. The challenge is to help students improve their study skills so they will be successful (or more successful over time) in learning the material and demonstrating this knowledge… Watching the improvement in students' performance over the course of a school year, is what inspires me, along with witnessing the sparks of interest in science overall!

Mr. Oliva (Technology - Computer Science)

“I really enjoy solving problems with algorithms, which is the primary focus of computer science. Debugging code is also really fun.”

Mr. Santos (Engineering)

I enjoy the open-endedness nature of problem solving, especially in the class that I teach. [T]here are few things more satisfying than creating your own unique solution to a problem. Creativity requires a high level of thinking so it's also challenging and frustrating much of the time. The payoff is worth it, though. And even if it doesn't work out as planned, there is always a lesson to be learned in taking those risks.”

Mr. Stanley (Math)

"That there is an answer. That people can approach a problem in different ways and still end up at the same answer. I get inspired when I have that "aha" moment. When I've been working on something for a long time, made multiple mistakes, and then it finally comes together.”

Q2: Where do you think the future of your STEM field is headed?

Mr. Joo: “I believe the future is headed where humans' shared goals are headed. If we're headed to Mars, we will need research on the psychology of space travel. If we are headed to a zombie apocalypse, then we will need research on the swarm behavior of zombie hordes. If we're headed for a more inclusive society, then we will need research on how to reduce intergroup conflicts and promote shared identity and belonging. If we're headed to a world of +3.5 degrees Celsius, we will need research on how to deal with not only intergenerational trauma but inter-epoch trauma. Psychology is a tool! It will head where the wielder of that tool goes. I just hope it will be for prosocial goals.”

Ms. McGovern: “I think now, chemistry will focus on the health of the planet by bridging Native (or indigenous) science/knowledge with non-native science. This may lead to new or improved medicines and improved landscape management (very important to California!)”

Mr. Oliva: “Higher and higher levels of abstraction, which leads to faster development of solutions to ever more complicated problems. Block based programming is a great example. Using visual blocks, instead of typing code, allows programmers to focus on solving their problem instead of focusing on the syntax of the language they are coding in. This enables non-programmers and new programmers (and even experienced programmers) to solve complex problems much more quickly than they otherwise could have using traditional text based program languages…

Artificial Intelligence (AI), specifically "Deep Learning," is clearly also the future of computer science. [T]here is an amazing interplay between neuroscience and computer science, both benefiting from the other and both exploding with new knowledge and tools.”

Mr. Santos: “I think engineering skills will continue to be more and more accessible to anyone who wants to use technology to solve problems. Today there are many relatively cheap and open resources, like OnShape, 3D printing, Arduino, and Raspberry Pi. Those kinds of items were only available to engineers when I was in college so it's amazing to see people as young as middle schoolers doing work that I was doing as a mechanical engineering undergraduate major. I imagine access will only increase over time.

In the greater engineering community, I think we will continue to see growth in the alternative and renewable energy sectors to meet the challenges of climate change.”

Mr. Stanley: “Applied math for sure. While there is still a lot of beauty in pure math, I think most people are interested in how math can help the world, their business, to solve real world problems.”

Q3: Is there an aspirational figure or role model you look or looked up to, now or growing up?

Mr. Joo: “No one growing up. I wasn't THAT nerdy. ;) However, because of Twitter, I get the chance to follow every psychologist, neuroscientist, or behavioral scientist that I want. Granted, I do not understand a majority of their tweets, but I do know I get smarter every day by their research and subsequent insights. So to answer, PsychTwitter is my role model. :)”

Ms. McGovern: “Growing up, I would say Carl Sagan, who hosted the original Cosmos series on television, was an inspirational figure for me… [M]ost importantly, he was a science communicator who believed in educating all people about the world around us. Not everyone will become a scientist, but as citizens of a country (and ultimately the world) we can be involved in the future health of the planet simply by being informed voters. Here's a quote from him that I used in class last year, ‘It's perilous and foolhardy for the average citizen to remain ignorant about global warming, say, or ozone depletion, air pollution, toxic and radioactive wastes, acid rain, topsoil erosion, tropical deforestation, exponential population growth.’”

Mr. Oliva: “I was a first generation college student in my family, and no one I knew worked in STEM. But it was something I was always interested in from an early age. I just always wanted to know "why?" It drove many adults in my life crazy, but made my science and math teachers very happy. But as a Physics teacher, as well as computer science, Richard Feynman is one of my inspirations. He understands how the universe works at an amazing level of detail but is able to present that knowledge in a way that people with much less knowledge and experience can understand.”

Mr. Santos: “Jonas Salk is a hero that deserves more attention. He wasn't an engineer, but he was a virologist who developed one of the first successful Polio vaccines. He chose not to patent the vaccine in order to maximize distribution around the world. It's inspiring to see someone forgo maximum profit in order to benefit the greater good worldwide.”

Mr. Stanley: “For me it is a professor I had in college, Prof. Phong. He was my Abstract Algebra teacher and he did research into restoring coast lines. He is the person that taught me how to struggle in a productive way. That I can take my mistakes and learn from them. How to backtrack through my work and find the mistake or the place to take a different step.”

Q4: What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as a STEM student or teacher?

Mr. Joo: “As a student, just because I listen to lectures, it does not mean I have learned anything. As a teacher, just because I lecture, it does not mean students have learned anything. In fact, it is only in teaching that I have truly mastered concepts and thus can apply them to my teaching. That said, even though I teach it, it does not mean I apply some important concepts to my own personal life.”

Ms. McGovern: “As a student, the most important lesson I learned was not to procrastinate. Review material daily and try to relate it to previous material in order to help see the whole picture of what we were learning. Also, always study before meeting with classmates to review… [to bring] something to the study group and… ask clarifying questions on the material.

As a teacher, there are several most important lessons: (1) create analogies to help students understand what they cannot see; (2) have the lesson organized in my head so that it flows; (3) anticipate the areas of difficulty and questions that will arise; (4) encourage students to be the teacher for their imaginary friend, dog, cat, whatever. This forces one to know the terms and concepts and then to try to make sense of it, pulling all the pieces together; and (5) have fun with the students and demonstrate a love of the subject, no matter how challenging it can be.”

Mr. Oliva: “Solving problems is hard and you need a lot of downtime for creative solutions to present themselves. It's hard to say "be creative" now (which is one reason tech companies often have flexible work schedules). You need to give yourself downtime for the solutions to present themselves. I've solved many complex problems in my head while walking my dog in the park… The "aha moment" in the shower is very real (and backed up by neuroscience now).”

Mr. Santos: “As an engineering student I learned that you can't cram or do work as last minute as you can in high school without incurring a lot of stress and sleep deprivation… Consistent work and good routines are really helpful, especially in the less structured world of college…

As someone with an engineering background (and my general personality) it's second nature for me to think deeply on the specific reasons for my design decision. I have learned to constantly ask students why they chose a design feature on their project - oftentimes there is no reason, so that's when I take the opportunity to coach them on the importance of intentionality.”

Mr. Stanley: “Keep trying. I know it sounds cliche but giving up after 1, 2, 3 tries is never going to work. Most people don't strum a guitar once and give up, shoot one basket and give up, but they try a math problem once and give up.”

Q5: Lastly, what are some words of advice you have for students interested in pursuing STEM?

Mr. Joo: “It will be hard. Walls are put up as obstacles. Some are meant to weed out those not willing to pay the price. Some are walls of oppression. Know how to distinguish which one you're facing. Know who you can be an ally for and who has your six. The journey is not meant to be traveled alone. Just because you're smart in high school, does not mean you're not going to struggle in college and beyond. The hard is the fun. The journey must have a purpose. That purpose can't always be $$$. With your accrued skills and knowledge, you can help or hurt people and that decision must be made every morning. And AMDG! For real, AMDG. :)”

Ms. McGovern: “First of all, pursue your interests but always be open to changes in your academic and career pathways. Secondly, do not be afraid of the challenging academic courses you will face. If you want it, dig deep, and go for it. Your perseverance and dreams are much more important than a letter grade. Stick with it!”

Mr. Oliva: “Do it! STEM is an exciting field. But please also study the humanities. We have a long history of brilliant people in STEM developing technologies that don't ultimately benefit humanity as much as they could. Our current tech industry is a classic example of this. There are too many people focused solely on "What can I do with this technology to make money?" instead of asking the more important question of "How can I use this technology to improve people's lives?" Either way, you can still make money. But the latter lets you sleep well at night too.”

Mr. Santos: “When I was an engineering student I really stressed about what specific major to choose… What I found out later was that the specific degree wasn't as important as I thought because the skills in each of the majors are often [transferable]… So in retrospect I think it's best to pursue your passion within STEM and if the right job doesn't present itself right away, you can find work in related fields because many STEM skills are universal.”

Mr. Stanley: “Lean [into] the difficulty, get comfortable with not knowing the answer. Like I said earlier, if a person can't get used to getting comfortable with making multiple mistakes then they are going to have a very hard time in any STEM field.”