James Larson: The STEM SITUATION

Aug 8, 2014 by

"A" Is for the Alchemist

An Interview with James Larson: The STEM SITUATION


Michael F. Shaughnessy –


1) James, first of all, can you tell us about yourself, your education and experience.

I’m not really a scientist, but education has been an important aspect of my career.  I got my Ph.D. in Theater from the University of Kansas, and I was an Associate Professor at New York University and also the Director of the Program in Educational Theater there.  Also, for 28 years I was Artistic Director of the third-largest professional theater for young audiences in the USA.  We launched the largest national tour of professional theater for young audiences in the country, so millions of children have seen my work.  In addition, in Omaha, NE—my home base—we initiated a drama-in-the schools program that served every child in every grade level at 75 elementary schools.

2) Now, I think it is pretty obvious, but why is science, math, engineering important?

To be honest, I approached the importance of STEM more from the point of view of a dramatist than an educator, albeit the outcomes are perhaps the same.  The two protagonists of my novel, “A” is for the Alchemist, are a brother and sister.  I wanted to “cast them against type.”  Thus, the ten-year-old sister, Winnie, would not a typical “damsel in distress.”  Instead, she is president of the STEM club at her school. Too often girls are measured by superficial qualities such as outer beauty and the way their minds can be easily influenced and molded to think a certain way, which can have a negative impact on self-esteem and self-worth. So, following a rather circuitous path, STEM is important to girls because the absence of it is so detrimental overall.

3) How can we best expose students to these fields, particularly in this day and age of emphasis on standardized testing?

As an artist and novelist, I feel that I’m doing what I can to expose students to STEM by making science seem fun and full of adventure in my book.  In other words, my goal is to make STEM seem “heroic” in this fictive world.  I wonder how many kids became archeologists because Indiana Jones was so heroic?  Making “STEM” synonymous with “heroism” is the method that I use.

4) When I talk to science teachers- they complain about two things—supplies and space—-it appears to be a constant battle for supplies and space in the schools- how do parents, and policy makers make principals in the schools understand that we need some basic instruments for science experiments?

My wife is the Director of Elementary Education for a school district in Omaha and also a former principal, so perhaps I should ask her to answer your question.  All I can do on my own is “invade” the hearts and minds of the kids in school with an action/adventure book that makes science seem thrilling, and which portrays the difference between using science for good or for evil.  Over the millennia, science was pretty much insignificant, but in the last 50 years it has attained the power of either saving the world or destroying it.  The generation of kids who are reading my book will probably decide Earth’s ultimate fate.  So, the stakes for them are high.

5) Let’s talk math- good teachers are somewhat few and far between. How do we recruit and retain good math teachers in the present environment?

Here’s a sad personal story:  I dropped out of math classes in tenth grade of high school because my math teacher was so bad.  In fact, he spent most of the class time sitting at his desk reading paperback westerns!  It seems like the only way to get anybody to do anything in this world is with incentives, and usually the best incentives are financial.  If math teachers got paid the same as investment bankers, we’d have a surplus of the greatest math teachers on the planet, and we could export them everywhere.

6) Engineering takes many forms – where should an exposure to the field begin? Who should do it and when should it be done?

In my opinion, people are “born” engineers or “born” novelists or “born” teachers or anything else.  I know that doesn’t sound very scientific, but, in my case, I knew I was going to be a writer from the time I was old enough to write my first paragraph, and I grew up in a small town with no library and my parents had no books in the house—so how else to explain it?  Along the way, fortunately, I got encouraged to write.  I think it’s crucial to identify in some way those who are the “born” scientists, and encourage them to be the best scientists in the world.  The tragedy is that kids who are “born” engineers might have difficulty paying for college or might face other burdens that preclude them from fulfilling their destinies.  Everyone has a destiny, and not finding a way how to fulfill it is a disaster.

7) Role models are important- how can elementary girls find good role models, and how do we find mentors for these role models?

In the case of an elementary school girl, a role model is someone who inspires the girl, someone whom she admires for her actions, her beliefs, her achievements. It does not necessarily mean that the girl must know the role model. For example, she can have Madam Curie, Indira Gandhi, Madeline Albright, whoever, as a role model.  
On the other hand, a mentor is someone who guides the girl with advice, gives her opinions on situations. It’s more of a personal relationship, and she must have contact with this person.  Usually this person is older than the school girl. It can be an older cousin, a grandpa/grandma, a  senior at school.  Quite often youth organizations do an excellent job of providing mentors, such as—in Omaha—at Girls Inc.  Here is a great link about mentors and STEM from my daughter, Tess Larson, who was selected “Mentor of the Year” in Omaha last year by the Midlands Mentoring Partnership (so she knows of what she speaks):  http://techbridgegirls.org/rolemodelsmatter/  “Role Models Matter: a Project of Techbridge,” a great online resource.

8) What are the careers of the future- and how do we need to go about informing young men and women as to the potential of these careers?

STEM affects what is closest and dearest to us—our children. STEM is their future—the technological age in which they live, the career options they weigh, and the key they use to make wise decisions. The United States Department of Labor listed the ten most wanted employees. Eight of those employees were ones with degrees in the STEM fields: accounting, computer science, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, information sciences and systems, computer engineering, civil engineering, and economics and finance. According to the U. S. Department of Commerce, STEM occupations are growing at 17 percent while others are growing at 9.8 percent. Health care workers with associate degrees to doctors of medicine will average 20 percent more in life time earnings than peers with similar degrees in non-health care. A glance at recent starting salaries for engineers shows $47,145 for civil engineers to $60,054 for chemical engineers.  This is strong evidence that STEM related jobs can be financially rewarding careers for our children.

9) What are some resources outside of schools that could be used to encourage STEM?

Schools are not the only places where girls can encounter and engage with science, despite that the vast majority of research about science training, identity, and career paths focus solely on those two settings.  Increasingly, policymakers, scientists, and science educators are becoming aware of the considerable amounts of learning that take place during out-of school time and in informal (non-school) settings: in STEM clubs, just like the one in my novel that Winnie Talisman runs. Obviously, STEM clubs are the perfect choice for girls to shore up the disparity between men and women in careers that represent the growing, needed, and lucrative STEM fields.  Nowadays it seems like every city has a wide array of STEM programs outside of school.

10) What have you found when girls get exposed to STEM? Does it change their thinking patterns ? Or values or beliefs?

Currently, women’s share of the STEM workforce is only 24 percent, in contrast to their more balanced share among the college-educated workforce (49%). This is owing to the fact that women hold a disproportionately low share of STEM undergraduate degrees, particularly in engineering disciplines.

The under-representation of women in science classes and STEM careers continues to be an issue of compelling puzzlement to me. Basic gender differences have been ruled out by the vast majority of scientists because studies demonstrate that younger boys and girls are similarly interested in science, and even that girls get better grades than boys in science. Yet high ability girls often do not have correspondingly high levels of confidence in their ability to do science. The standardized test score difference between boys and girls is not definitive, varying by year and geographic location, though boys appear to do better at the extreme high end of the distribution.  Under-represented minority groups, including women, are generally very slowly catching up with their white,male peers.Yet itis still undeniable that proportionately fewer girls than boys persist in the STEM “pipeline” once they get to college and of those who do persist through graduation, many leave the STEM career path. 

A study was conducted with 100 male and female computer sciences students at Carnegie Mellon University.  Outcomes from the study show how science training institutions and work environments are structured to more readily allow men—and their preferences and needs—to claim the realms of power and success.  The book of this study is Unlocking the Clubhouse:  Women in Computing, available on Amazon.com.

11) A good colleague, David Pritchard offers physics courses on line for free- is this the type of thing that we need more of ?

Earlier this summer, Joe Nocera had a great column in the New York Times in which he praised the free online classes available at Arizona State University and the equalizing effect they can have on the extreme social stratification caused by income inequality in this country.  Nocera quotes Michael Crow, president of ASU:  “‘In the bottom quartile of family incomes, only 9 percent of kids attain a college education,’ Crow said about five minutes after I met him on Monday afternoon. ‘And, in the top quartile, 80 percent get a college education, regardless of academic ability.’ That statistic is what he is trying to change.” 

I believe any class online for free—be it physics or philosophy—is good for the body politic.

12) What have I neglected to ask?

Where people can buy my action/adventure novel, “A” is for the Alchemist:  A Winnie and Winslow Adventure.  The answer is to order it in soft cover or ebook format at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or iTunes. 

13) Is there a place where we can get more information?

A good place to start is the public TV station in your state, as they have great programs on the topic that you can often view online.  In Nebraska, where I live, here is great link:  http://netnebraska.org/basic-page/learning-services/out-school-time-and-stem

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