In 2015 we were, time and again, impressed by the ingenuity and creativity of kids.
We wrote about some of them on this blog. There was 16-year-old Olivia Hallisey, whose simple, cost-effective Ebola detection method made her the winner of the Google Science Fair. Then there was Jahnik Kurukulasuriya, who took time off from Pittsburgh’s Allderdice High School to present his breast cancer research at the White House.
Some kids used technology to innovate and help their peers. Fourteen-year-old Lexi Schneider won the National STEM Video Game Challenge for “Head of Class,” a game that leads players through a comic-inspired virtual school, teaching lessons along the way. And 10-year-old Torrae Owen used a 3D printer to build a plastic “superhero hand.” Her disabled peers who lack hands or fingers can use her invention to pick up objects.
These kids give us a glimpse of what youngsters can do. “Youth are natural inventors,” Joan Ganz Cooney Center director Michael H. Levine said when he announced the STEM video game contest.
So why are these kids the exception?
Low-income students and kids of color often lack access to the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education that has helped the Olivia Halliseys flourish. Many under-resourced schools cannot offer basic chemistry or Algebra II. According to the U.S. Department of Education, black and Latino students have disproportionately low access to math and science courses.
It is fair to say that even when the seeds are planted, most kids will not grow up to become cutting-edge cancer researchers. But STEM education opens many career possibilities. The nonprofit Change the Equation reports that middle-skill jobs that require technology grew 2.5 times faster between 2003 and 2013 than jobs that do not.
Economist Raj Chetty has spotlighted the many factors stacked against low-income children—and the importance of childhood environment in laying the groundwork for success. He has researched how a child’s neighborhood and family income affect his or her economic opportunities.
In a study in 2014, Chetty and his colleagues found that “the birth lottery”—who a child is born to—is a bigger predictor today of economic mobility than in the past. In a lecture, he noted how a childhood of poverty is much less likely to lead to an adulthood of innovation. A child born to parents in the top 1 percent income bracket is 10 times more likely to invent something than one whose parents earn below the median income.
By contrast, with access to STEM and hands-on learning, kids begin to fuse technical skill-building with curiosity—with an eye on the world around them. In 2015, we watched what young people can do when they have the right tools, supportive educators and families, and well-resourced schools.
In 2016 and beyond, let’s give more kids a chance to experiment and create.