Department of Energy

Showing, Not Telling to Engage Students in STEM

March 11, 2016

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Roderick Jackson and a group of high schoolers pause for a selfie inside Oak Ridge National Lab's 3D-printed house. | Photo Courtesy of Oak Ridge National Lab.

Roderick Jackson and a group of high schoolers pause for a selfie inside Oak Ridge National Lab's 3D-printed house. | Photo Courtesy of Oak Ridge National Lab.

In education, it is often said, “Show, don’t tell.” Students visiting ORNL and other national laboratories around the country for My Brother’s Keeper Day at the National Labs were not being told what they could achieve through STEM careers, they were being shown.

A career as a scientist or engineer capable of leading world-changing research was not only achievable but was right before their eyes. My colleagues and I offered insight on real steps we took in our path to a career at the national lab.

I recently led a research project at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory that links a 3D-printed car with a 3D-printed house. The two share power back and forth, based on where the power is needed.

The Additive Manufacturing Integrated Energy demonstration -- AMIE -- is a recent career highlight for me, so when I was offered the opportunity to share the experience of turning a “what if” dream into a “what is” reality during the My Brother’s Keeper Day at the national labs, I was super excited. The students from Austin-East High School in Knoxville, Tennessee, were engaged from the moment I asked them to think of a time they thought, “what if?”  After giving the students a tour of the first-of-its-kind house and printed utility vehicle, the kids’ amazement and excitement were evident.

It was so encouraging to see teens captivated by the application of science and engineering, but the biggest impact was watching them come to the realization they could one day do something similar. Not only could they identify with the fact this was done in their hometown; even more, the project leader was an underrepresented minority, just like them.

It was clear by the end of the event that each student realized new possibilities of what they could achieve. As one student said before heading back to school, "Anything that you want to do or that you think of, you can make it happen if you work hard. We've got to keep working like these guys are."

To remain a technology and innovation leader, the U.S. has to continue to produce STEM professionals from the full spectrum of our diverse society. Events like My Brother’s Keeper Week at the National Labs are a powerful and effective way to achieve this goal. As more students are exposed to some of our nation’s greatest technical resources, they can see themselves in similar roles and ask “what if?”