Ask STEM advocates how to increase participation in science and tech and they’re likely to say, “Get kids interested early.”
Many cite studies that show middle school as the age when kids choose — or don’t — to pursue studies and careers in science, technology, engineering and math.
But simply exposing young teens may not be enough.
A 2008 study showed that middle school students who viewed videos of STEM professionals discussing their work reported more interest in STEM careers. But the effect was slight, and researchers suggested it would take multiple and varied exposures to get and keep students hooked on these fields.
For the first time Wednesday, Google brought its Geek Street Fair to Chicago, offering students from across the city a chance to play and interact with cutting-edge technologies.
The event, at Daley Plaza, featured interactive activity booths from museums and organizations across the city. The festival started in New York City in 2013.
Google drew more than 1,500 student attendees, including many 8- to 14-year-old summer campers who were brought to the free event by the Chicago Park District, said Rob Biederman, an organizer of the festival and Google’s head of Midwest government relations and public affairs. Biederman said the event is open to people of all ages.
Ben Collins-Sussman, Google Chicago’s head engineer, said the complexity of the exhibits surprised him — in a good way. He recently moved into that role, replacing Brian Fitzpatrick ⇒, who left to become founder and CTO of restaurant ticketing startup Tock.
“I think we underestimate kids’ interest and the extent to which they’re willing to engage,” said Collins-Sussman. “This sort of demonstrates that we could be doing a lot more than we’re already doing.”
Students got to virtually explore Martian terrain with the Adler Planetarium, build circuits with the Chicago Public Library and use the Minecraft video game to discover Chicago’s landscape with theChicago Architecture Foundation. They also got to play with the Google Cardboard virtual reality viewer.
Gabriel Lyon, vice president of education and experience at the Chicago Architecture Foundation, said her organization’s booths will offer experiences usually only available through private camps. She said it’s important to show even passers-by what it looks like to engage in STEM.
“STEM is not an activity that happens behind closed doors, it’s really got to be a public endeavor,” Lyon said.
Edgar Duenas, 16, who will be a junior at Lindblom Math and Science Academy, spent the day working booths for a number of exhibitors, including Chicago Knights Robotics, a city-wide robotics team. He said he and the volunteers spent the past few days preparing the exhibit, which featured mini autonomous vehicles on an enclosed track, to attract young kids.
“That’s why we did it — to show off that everyone can do it and more or less get the youth involved in technology,” Duenas said. "If they can use the skills we know now, when they get to our age they’ll know a lot more.”
Biederman said Google wanted diverse exhibits to complement other citywide STEM initiatives. Google has 600 employees in Chicago, most of whom focus on engineering or sales.
“We kind of feel that with a wide variety of booths and interests,” Biederman said, “we’ve got a much better chance of hooking kids onto STEM and computer science at an early age,” he said.