FETC 2020: ‘Q and A’ with Justin Shaifer

‘Mr. Fascinate’ discusses engaging Gen Z in STEM, motivating educators and improving equity in STEM
By: | January 17, 2020
Justin Shaifer at FETC 2020

Growing up in a single-parent home on the South Side of Chicago, Justin J. Shaifer had little awareness of the potential of a STEM career. His worldview drastically transformed after experiences at Hampton University in Virginia. Shaifer graduated with a bachelor’s degree in marine and environmental science, with the highest departmental GPA; was president of the student body; and received scholarships from NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that covered 100 percent of his college costs. Now 25, he travels the country empowering young students to “embrace their inner nerd” despite their surroundings, and developing culturally responsive STEM curriculum for New York City institutions.

The energetic and engaging Shaifer presented the FETC® 2020 closing keynote, “Bring STEM to Class: A Practical Guide for Education,” and then took the time to chat with DA.

What’s something that you didn’t get a chance to mention in your keynote that educators should know about STEM?

In the longer version of this presentation, it’s very important for me to do experiential learning with the educators in the room. I don’t like to just show educators “Here’s this thing,” and give them a walk-through. That’s helpful, but what’s even more helpful is in a PD, actually allowing them to experience this for themselves and letting them see how engaging it can be for them, so they can immediately copy and paste how they felt right into an experience for the students.

What’s the biggest takeaway for educators when it comes to your message regarding STEM and what you do?

A lot of people think of STEM as a series of jobs that are going to prepare people for the modern workforce, or a couple of lessons that you need to learn in the classroom. The way I approach and engage kids who are from underestimated backgrounds in STEM is by helping them view STEM as a tool they can use to empower themselves and solve problems in their communities. When you look at STEM with that approach, and take that perspective, it completely changes people’s view of it as a subject.

STEM then becomes more of a tool. 

Yes, rather than just information that you’re getting beat over the head with. For example, in the after-school programs that we do, we’re literally teaching kids coding skills and then giving them the opportunity to build a platform, whether that’s an app or a website, to solve a problem in their community they care about. And that way, they’re using STEM as a tool and not just being beat over the head with “Learn this coding skill.” It’s: “What problem do you want to solve? Now build your solution.”

What is something that educators should avoid in regard to STEM, or something that’s not going to connect with this generation?

That’s the first thing that came to mind, that rote memorization and just beating people over the head with trying to memorize information. I understand that some of that is in line with what our education system is currently, and that a lot of that teachers have to do.

As far as other no-nos, it’s really important to use empowering language with students. I work with students who all of their lives have heard they’re underrepresented or underserved, or maybe they’re underutilized or underperforming, and this was something I heard, too, as a kid, and I would internalize all of that. So I use words like “underestimated” because I think they’re more effective at creating a different lens for the students to see themselves. So empowering students with information and the way that the teacher sees them is important. 

Educators’ roles are now shifting away from an authoritarian sole provider of information because of the democratization of information that’s out there, so I kind of a see a shift in that it might make more sense that rather than be an authoritarian figure—“you need to do this”—to be more of a facilitator role in that a teacher is almost more passively engaging the student’s exploration of the material and guiding them along the way.

You touched upon this briefly, but how can educators better address equity within STEM?

A lot of times when we’re working with kids from underestimated backgrounds, they tend to not see themselves in STEM because they don’t see anyone who looks like them in these kinds of career paths. So it’s really important to put those role models in front of them. 

There are hashtags like #STEMdiversity or #blackSTEMexcellence, and places where you can find people from the backgrounds of the students whom you’re working with, whoever they may be, to show them what it looks like. So when we’re talking about equity, exposure is really important, and making people feel like they can do the thing, whatever the thing may be. It’s a priority to show kids “Here’s this person who looks like you” or “Here’s this person who is from where you’re from” who is doing this and it’s possible.

Tell us about Fascinate and your vision for it.

Right now, we do all sorts of fun pop-up STEM events for kids in the New York City area. We do things where we simulate that Magic Cool Bus experience for kids. We taught kids how to race drones and they’re learning how to use drones in the process, and 3D printing where they’re creating their own badges. In addition, we’re conflating things they think are cool with STEM—like we do science rap competitions and we’ll also do Minecraft or do XBox, and then they’ll learn on the backside how to create some of these things they tend to consume already. 

My real vision for this is that educators expect students to pursue STEM degrees without showing them the fun side of what’s possible in STEM. A lot of the kids I work with want to get into the NBA or NFL, and they have ESPN to show them “Here’s the cool, glamorized version of what you can become.” So you have this abundance of kids practicing basketball and trying out because they’re intrinsically motivated. So to cultivate that intrinsic motivation with students in STEM, I’d like Fascinate to become the ESPN of STEM, to provide that glamorized version of what this can actually become if they apply themselves. So it’s giving these students those role models and hopefully trickling down into intrinsic motivation for the next generation of students.

How has your personal journey ignited your passion for STEM?

For me, I was secretly always interested in science and technology, except it wasn’t the cool thing to do, especially growing up in Chicago—having nerdy interests was kind of wrong almost. And I felt that I couldn’t show people that side of myself, so I prioritized being cool and funny. And I was getting into trouble and getting involved in the wrong kinds of things.

But then I came across a patent that my grandfather held. My grandfather passed away when I was 12, and I always heard he was an engineer, but I didn’t contextualize what that meant—like, I thought he was a train conductor or that kind of thing. 

So I found out he had a patent for an early prototype of a VCR, and I thought, “Wow, maybe this stuff is for me.” So for me, that was my role model. I had this privilege of having this person who was close to me do that, so I thought I could do it, too.

That happened to me in high school. I realized that other kids didn’t have that experience, so I try to be who he was to me, even after his death—showing someone I can do all of these things because I look like him, I have a similar disposition. I see this as possible because I see someone who looks like me and is related to me and has similar experiences to me.

Sometimes in STEM, we prioritize reaching the analytical, nerdy kinds of kids, and I do fit in that category in some ways, and other ways I don’t. But because of the way that the workforce is moving, we can’t target that 10% who is; now, we need to have the creative kids, the ones who like kinesthetic movement and dancing, etc. All of those people need to feel like STEM is for them. 

When I approach STEM, I’ll dance with those kids or do what I can to make everyone feel like this can be something for them.

What do you see in the future for STEM education and Gen Z?

I came into this space thinking there was a lot of things that kids just wouldn’t like about STEM, but it’s becoming more cool now than ever. You have folks like Elon Musk with Tesla, and a lot of these kids look up to these tech giants who have literally nerded themselves into success. It’s cooler now, so it’s not as hard—or even as corny—for me to come in and show kids how cool this stuff is.

I’m really optimistic about how inspired this generation is going to be about pursuing these STEM careers. They’re going to figure it out. But we have a lot of work to do in education in designing environments that are similar to work environments. The stuff I was working on in my tech job—I did none of that stuff while in the classroom. Everything I learned on the spot, or went and watched YouTube videos and taught myself. 

We really have to figure out this gap because I think this gap is broadening as the STEM workforce is taking off and becoming more and more advanced; it’s completely leaving behind the stagnant classroom model. So we have to constantly think about developing our students with that in mind.

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