Let's Stop Telling Kids They Can't Be Good at Science (And Math)

Last year, Scott Kelly wrote, “I was a Bad Student Who Became an Astronaut. Let’s Stop Telling People They Can’t Be Good at Science” for Time Magazine. I love that he wrote this so let’s look at it with the youth and teens lens on.

Scott remarked:

…that they believe science is too difficult, too complex for a normal person to comprehend. Apparently, over one-third of the world thinks I’m a genius, because according to the 3M State of Science Index, 36% of people around the globe think you need to be a genius in order to have a career in science.”

Why do people – especially youth and teens – think you need to be a genius?

Adults, we’re likely to blame for planting that seed. My spouse and I both studied engineering. Personally, I’m a fan MacGyvering stuff so tinkering, building, exploring, experimenting – it’s all natural and I tried to give my kiddos opportunities to do that stuff when they were growing up.

But one small word or what you might think to be an insignificant incident can derail confidence and belief. I saw this first hand. When my son was 11, his math teacher told him, “You’ll never be good at math.” I’ll never forget that. This kid had built a zipline in our backyard, but only after I told him he had to do the math to prove to me that it would be a safe structure. Yeah, that zipline was in my backyard for many years, safely zipping people through the yard. 

My son had thought about being an engineer, because like his parents, he liked to tinker, create, experiment – and he was good at it. He was put in a “lower math class” for middle school because “he didn’t score high enough on the test to be placed higher.”  Within the first week, when the kid was scoring 112% on all math material, the administration admitted they might have made a mistake. Eventually, they put him in a higher class.

But even after that, this experience as an 11-year-old stuck with him and was likely a driving force in his choosing to go down a completely different career path. 

Another quote from Scott’s article:

“But that belief — that science is a mysterious endeavor beyond the grasp of all but the most genetically gifted among us — may be keeping thousands of students from pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.”

Why does this happen? Who plants these seeds? We should be planting the seeds of encouragement, curiosity, and experimentation while supporting with the skills to achieve in science, technology, engineering and math.

Another quote from Scott:

“If a kid shows a spark in anything, we need to help stoke that fire. When a student reaches a hard concept in math or science, we should model perseverance by helping them break down the challenge into smaller steps.”

I’ll take it a step further. Not only should we help them break it down, we should lift them up, encourage them to stick it out, recognize when that potential might be on the verge of being snuffed out and as Scott says, stoke that fire.

Our world needs more risk takers to be in these STEM fields. If you aren’t a science person or a science family, that doesn’t mean your kids can’t be. 

Foster that curiosity. Show them that belief is a powerful thing, and that hard work and perseverance can get them anywhere they want to be.

Scott’s article references the 3M State of Science Index. Another fun fact from this survey: 86% of respondents who are parents living in the United States believe we need science to solve the world’s problems. So let’s get our teens ready to be those problem solvers. 

Scott Kelly – Thanks for sharing your story and encouraging kids to do science and math!