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Science Center Program Helps Teens Learn STEM Skills

St. Louis Science Center
St. Louis Science Center

Like most kids, Diamond Williams toyed with several potential careers. Cosmetology had potential. So did following in the footsteps of her father, a dialysis technician, but her squeamishness cut short those dreams. Instead, Williams is now an engineer, a career path she discovered through a St. Louis Science Center youth program.

Youth Exploring Science works with St. Louis teens to create projects centered around science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM.

“Before the program, I had never heard of the word engineering — ever,” Williams told “St. Louis on the Air” host Don Marsh on Wednesday. “I had never heard of it in class. I had never met an engineer.”

YES partners teens with STEM professionals. Williams’ mentor changed her life, she said. “Pretty much I asked him one day, ‘Hey, is there a field where it’s like engineering and chemistry?’ He was like, ‘That still exists, and it’s called chemical engineering.’”

Since then, Williams graduated from the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla, and is a couple of months into a job at Eaton Aerospace in Cleveland.

“The mentoring is a very important part of our program,” said Christian Greer, St. Louis Science Center’s new chief education and programs officer. “Our educators are very experienced with science, and have an undergraduate and/or master’s degrees, some have doctorates actually, in a scientific discipline.”

Demand is high for STEM jobs in the St. Louis area and around the world.

“Many of the jobs that we’re thinking about in the future that are STEM jobs are things that haven’t even been visualized,” said Christian Greer, St. Louis Science Center’s new chief education and programs officer. “So we have to prepare a little bit more generally — not for a specific job, but with skills that allow us to be ready to innovate.”

YES employs both a classroom setting and individual programs. The hand’s-on teaching style is less formal than a typical high school class, and allows the students to explore areas that interest and challenge them, Greer said.

“Math is one of the challenging things,” he said. “We try to teach math and integrate it into our program at the St. Louis Science Center as a language. It’s a universal language of science and it certainly is the way in which we express in quantitative terms a lot of the things that we see in nature and in our world.”  

YES also focuses on that ability to be flexible and adapt to new environments and roles.

“What (teens) do on the schoolyard, what they do online in terms of their digital identity, what they do in school, in class, in the workplace, on an internship, they will encounter lots of different systems,” Greer said. “We try to teach them about our system and getting them more comfortable with adapting and being able to work in these various areas.”

About 250 students participate in YES each year, Greer said. Students come from partner organizations: churches, after-school programs and through out-of-school organizations like the Boys & Girls Club. There are no GPA or course requirements; an aptitude assessment helps YES leaders customize programs for students.

“If people are interested in things, they have like a momentum toward something, but they run into barriers,” Greer said. “If there’s not access to resources or people who have that shared interest, it’s very hard to maintain that. So I think we try to create a world, an environment, where the teens are inspired to pursue those interests in those fields and learn about new skills and how they relate to STEM.”

That’s exactly what it did for Williams, she said.

“The YES program will change you. It will radically alter your ways of thinking and approaching life issues. I would say that it’s challenging. I think that a lot of the times we are displayed the low-hanging fruit in society and a lot of times in the classroom, but the YES program will force you to reach to the top, to not go with everything that’s tangible, that’s accessible; to challenge yourself; to go harder; to be involved; to be a catalyst of change for your community and your family. The YES program will inspire you. I would say the YES program is what we need. Not a program that people want — we need it.”

Program Information

Youth Exploring Science

“St. Louis on the Air” discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.

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