STEM: An Education Odyssey

Neil deGrasse Tyson. The name alone conjures thoughts of childhood curiosity about outer space. This makes sense, as Tyson is director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History, has hosted influential television series including Nova Science Now and Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, and has written several books, the latest of which being Astrophysics for People in a Hurry.

What you may not have realized is that Tyson isn’t just a famous scientist – he’s a famous science educator. He has developed a set of passionate ideas around what works and what doesn’t in education, especially when it comes to STEM.

And so, it was a fascinating opportunity for over 800 NYC public school teachers at the 2017 Summer STEM Institute to have the chance to listen to him on stage as part of a conversation with Chancellor Carmen Fariña.

The STEM Institute is a three-day professional development opportunity for teachers that happens several times a year. The 2017 Summer STEM Institute, hosted by the Department of Education’s STEM Department, was generously supported by the GE Foundation as part of a deep multi-year partnership with NYC schools. Attendees had the opportunity to hear opening remarks from Karen Ludwig Kariuki, senior advisor at the GE Foundation. Kariuki compellingly put the day perspective for the teachers in the room, connecting education with industry and philanthropy.

Over a two-year period, more than 1,750 NYC public school teachers took advantage of intensive professional learning opportunities, and teachers that attended the first STEM Institutes are now facilitating institute offerings. To support building capacity, teachers come in teams of two to five and can bring back classroom sets of materials to support STEM programs in their own schools.

“My ideas about education are half baked,” Tyson warned. But they were anything but.

“We need to reimagine what we consider vistas of learning. A visit to Yankee Stadium can be just as educational as a visit the Museum of Natural History,” he told the crowd, eluding to the idea that STEM education is relevant in every facet of life – like the physics of throwing a baseball.

Chancellor Fariña posed several thought-provoking questions. Appropriately for someone like Tyson, she asked, “In teaching STEM, what are some of the important components we need to keep in mind in getting these kids excited?”

“We are not taught about how to think about information and process it,” he responded. “How to decide whether something is true, likely true, or not true. Curriculum is knowledge based - have you learned this? Not, how do you think about this?”

At another point in the discussion, Tyson expanded on this thought. “The greatest classes you ever took aren’t necessarily the ones you did well in, but the ones you liked. It’s based on how enthusiastic you became about the subject. And that's something that always flows through the excitement of the teacher.”

That comment got a thunderous round of applause. These teachers clearly had the excitement he was talking about.

If you’re inspired by Tyson, and by the support of the GE Foundation to enhance STEM education across NYC’s 1,800 public schools, become a part of the work with The Fund today.

Matt Darian