The Secret To Encouraging Your Kid's Interest In STEM

Eugenia Duodu reflects on how her own mother helped blaze a path for her in STEM.

STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) has grown to become one of the hottest topics in Canadian education, with predictions estimating that at least 70 percent of Canada’s most in-demand and highest paying future jobs will require some form of STEM literacy and skills. Developing a strong foundation from kindergarten to grade 12 is critical, and not surprisingly, parents can have a huge influence on shaping their child’s perception of STEM. Eugenia Duodu is the CEO of Visions of Science, which inspires kids from low-income and marginalized communities to pursue careers in STEM. Here, she reflects on her own experience growing up, and highlights what parents need to understand about encouraging kids in STEM.

Accept some uncertainty
I had no idea about what I wanted to be when I “grew up.” I made up answers a few times when I had to for school assignments, but I didn’t know. My mom handled this prolonged exploratory phase of my life well. Even when I was older, she never prescribed or forced me down a single career path. She simply encouraged me to try everything and strive to excel in general, with the confidence that it would eventually all come together. And it did.
Ms. Chatelaine: Space explorer Natalie PanekMs. Chatelaine: Space explorer Natalie Panek
Parents sometimes worry if they can’t see the specific job or career path that lies ahead for their kids. But they forget that the job market for their kids will be vastly different. My current job didn’t even exist when I was young. The world is changing at a rapid pace and critical thinking and problem solving skills – which form the basis of STEM — are increasingly applicable to a wide range of fields (not to mention understanding and contributing to the world around us). So while parents do need to actively encourage participation in STEM subjects, they also need to understand they are building a foundation, not racing toward some kind of finish line.

You don’t need all the answers
I was curious about the world around me growing up, so I asked a lot of questions. “What is that?” “Why is this happening?” “How did that happen?” “Why can’t I?…”  Parents often think they need to have all the answers, but my mom would often respond with, “I’m not sure Eugenia, but you should find out!” So I did. I found answers at the local library, or from my favourite TV shows, Bill Nye The Science Guy and Magic School Bus, and when I’d tell my mom what I’d found, she’d respond, “I didn’t know that! Great job!” I grew up learning it was okay to be curious and ask questions, and feeling empowered to find the answers with the resources around me. I didn’t realize it at first, but my mom’s humble confessions of admitting what she did not know instilled a foundational principle that I carried throughout my journey in STEM — you may not know, but you can find out!

Your children are likely just as curious as I was. They may not be as vocal about it but they certainly take notice of the world around them. Nurture this natural curiosity and encourage your children to find out the answers for themselves.

Seek out opportunities and role models
“STEM” wasn’t a term when I was growing up but my mom recognized the importance of its principles. She would buy me puzzles, building kits, let me replicate kitchen chemistry experiments that I saw on TV — anything that would stimulate thinking and problem solving. When I was old enough, she had the patience to let me be the one to put together new furniture, pouring over pages of instructions sprawled out over our living room floor (never underestimate the feelings of pride and triumph that can come from this!)

All of these experiences built the foundation of my love for STEM, but as I progressed through middle and high school, maintaining that passion became difficult. I had the privilege of going to awesome schools and having great teachers – but as a black girl growing up in a low-income community, I rapidly faced the reality and implications of underrepresentation in the field. I became deeply discouraged from pursuing it further and it wasn’t until I had the opportunity to be part of an enrichment program at the University of Toronto that my perceptions started to shift. The experience was transformative.

These types of mentorship and workshop programs aren’t always easy to find — which is why it’s so important to seek them out. Investigate outreach programs, learning camps and offshoot programs at local universites or colleges. Ask about financial assistance programs if the cost of admission is too high.

And have an eye toward building relationships with the people who can be representative role models for your kids. After many of my talks, a lot of parents ask me to keep in contact with their daughter, or ask for resources to expose them to more role models. This is hugely important, especially for families who don’t have an immediate network of people in STEM. These connections can result in life-changing opportunities.
Ms. Chatelaine: Saadia Muzaffar, founder of TechGirls CanadaMs. Chatelaine: Saadia Muzaffar, founder of TechGirls Canada
Be your kid’s strongest advocate
I hold a PhD in chemistry from the University of Toronto and have engaged in ground breaking research. At Visions of Science, where I’m the CEO, we work to empower youth from low-income communities in STEM. But those accomplishments almost never came to pass, all because of one guidance counsellor appointment in high school.

I remember sitting in the office and expressing the desire to take upper level science courses in grade 11. Despite having great grades so far, my guidance counsellor adamantly insisted this path would be too hard for me, and that I should study something other than science. I went home extremely discouraged and told my mom about it. She immediately clapped back with an affirmation that I was more than capable of succeeding down this path, and proceeded to intervene. Shortly afterwards, I was enrolled in the upper level classes.

Parents need to be aware of what other messages their kids might be receiving, and advocate for their children’s interests. Some parents are unaware that students have the option of dropping math and science courses in high school, which can result in drastically reduced career options. My mom knew this and was determined to protect my potential. She was highly aware of the barriers and perceptions that would be imposed on me and fiercely advocated for me. It boosted my confidence and helped me to dream big for myself.

Parents can play a huge role in redirecting negative experiences and perceptions towards STEM. Have ongoing and open conversations about your child’s interests and support their educational path. Be aware of what is needed for success and ask for help when it’s needed. This is of course important beyond just STEM-based education. If you encourage your children and have their back, there will be no limit to what they can do.

Eugenia Duodu is speaking at TEDxToronto on October 26. TEDxToronto brings the stories of innovators and industry disruptors from all different backgrounds to the stage, and the 10th anniversary event explores the theme of identity.