The ‘Other’ E in STEM

I wake up today having so much hope for our future.

At first glance, this sentence seems bizarre. After all, we live in Colorado, literally next to Columbine High School, and I attended University of Colorado Medical School in Denver. I was a resident on call at an area trauma hospital the day the Columbine shootings happened, and I lived through the media frenzy every day of the hospital trying to care for some of the victims who survived. Yesterday, again, a person in Colorado has destroyed too many lives, much too soon, for reasons unknown.

And yet, I have hope.

I spent yesterday at the last day of a GT camp offered by our public school district for two weeks during the summer. The final day is the day parents come to see all of the projects the kids have been working on for the last few weeks. Our kids were so excited to show us what they had done.

My son took a robotics class because he thought it sounded like fun, and discovered an intellectual passion. Like most of the robotics classes, it used Lego Mindstorms kits to introduce the kids to the concepts of robotics and how to build and program small robots. He was as excited to show off his team’s robot as he was to see the other amazing creations built. He also asked if I would like him to build a robot that would massage my back (and his). We both laughed.

His intellectual intensity was in full “on” mode yesterday : he was flapping his arms, explaining things excitedly with his eyes locked on mine, and talking loudly to the other boys in the class. Towards the end of the display time, the teacher called them over, and they all sat, motionless and attentive, while she spoke. It was so unusual that I took notice, and then it clicked. The teacher had given them an outlet for their intensity over the last few weeks – robotics knowledge and supplies – and they listened to her every word with respect.

Her next sentence, though, is what gives me so much hope. She explained to them that it was time to take apart their robots, and acknowledged they were going to be emotional about this, and that this was normal. She asked if parents would help them take down the robots and support the emotional process.

I was in awe. This teacher they clearly respected gave them permission to be emotional about their robot creations. In public. For my son, who lives in a world that tries to crush his emotional intensity most of the time, this was a true gift – doubly so in a highly STEM-centric setting. She added an extra ‘e’ – emotion – to a STEM-class moment that could have been treated very methodically, very mechanistically, and it made a world of difference for him. He quickly helped his team take down the robot and re-assemble the kit to turn back in. And then he cried in my arms, letting out the emotion of the last few weeks. No one stared, or thought it was weird. It was just normal, and it was wonderful.

Why do we need programming specific for GT kids? So they can develop relationships with teachers who understand them, help teach them empathy, and model how to deal – in a healthy way – with the the intense emotions they experience. We need programs to help them find and develop their intellectual passions so they can steer their boundless energy towards creations to help make this world a better place. Not destroy it.

Today I have hope for my incredibly intense son. And I thank that teacher who showed it to me.

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