Bill Nye the Science Guy Talks Keeping Teens Interested in STEM (U.S.News)

If wearing a tie-dye lab coat gets students interested in science, technology, engineering and math, that's what teachers should do.

For some high schoolers, science isn't an abstract topic they learn about in class, but the key to solving problems that affect the globe.

"If you're on blood thinners and you get a cut, your blood is just going to flow without stopping because you don’t have the properties necessary to heal the wound," says Bradley Nokes, 17, who, along with fellow students at West Salem High School in Oregon, helped design a prototype of a system that could one day help people with this problem.

Their project won first place in the nationwide Toshiba/NSTA ExploraVision K-12 science competition, one of the world’s largest, for grades 10 to 12. National winners of the competition, which was administered by the National Science Teachers Association, were honored at events in Washington last week. Members of the first-place national teams ​were each awarded a $10,000 savings bond.

Bill Nye – ​known for his 1990s educational show "Bill Nye the Science Guy," which began​ streaming online last month via the on-demand video service Netflix​ – has been involved with the competition for more than a decade. 

He spoke to U.S. News about keeping the spark for science, technology, engineering and math ​alive in teens. The interview was edited for length and clarity. 

Do you think it is harder for teachers to keep teens interested in STEM as opposed to younger students?

Well, it's really easy with young students. ​As a science educator, I've never had any trouble engaging people because you got props, you blow stuff up. ​Come on, what's cooler than that? ​What is it that you loved about your favorite teacher? This is not a trick question, it was his or her passion, right?

So when I'm king of the forest, which is a ways off, we would enable school systems to hire teachers of physics, chemistry, mathematics and biology to make as much money as say, a software engineer, and it would attract people who are very competent and passionate. This would lead to a better tomorrow for all humankind, at a very reasonable cost.

What advice would you give to a teacher who is struggling to keep his or her students interested in these topics?

Let your passion come through, that's what I tell everybody. Go for it. Don't be embarrassed. Go wild. Whatever it is, whatever it is within you, let it out. If you have a tie-dye lab coat, go for it. If you want to wear a perfectly starched lab coat, crisp with a bow tie, I say embrace it. If you are wearing a bow tie – another thing I'll say, just as an aside – I think you should also wear a shirt. It's up to you.​

What role do parents play in helping high schoolers stay interested in science and math?

Well, just keep in mind that the role of parents is to make sure kids do their homework. You do that by way of example. If you come home as a parent and check out and just start watching television, don't expect your kid to not feel that that's OK. It's very easy for me to say – ​it's a hard thing to actually do.

But a tradition of academic excellence is passed down. As we say all the time, it's not what you say, it's what you do. Children are watching you all the time if you are a grown-up. If you conduct your life in a dissolute, ​lazy way, don't expect your kids not to do the same thing.

What are the future consequences for a teen who has lost his or her enthusiasm for science and math?​

Your life won’t be as much fun, that's all I'll tell you. It just won't be as much fun. It won't be as interesting.

Do you think the competitive aspect of a competition​ like ExploraVision gets students interested?

Everybody. You ask anybody, 'Oh I love losing.' Nobody says that – everybody likes to win. Everybody competes and this is deep within us. ​This is evolution, ​man. ​Our ancestors who did not compete, are not our ancestors; ​they got eliminated a long time ago.

Competition is not bad, emphasizing anything too much is probably bad because you de-emphasize other important things. ​But nevertheless, if you are diligent as a student in ExploraVision you can get a scholarship and go to college and almost certainly have a higher quality of life than if you didn't.

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