Taking the World by STEM


On one weekend in August, 2012, the world witnessed two remarkable scientific accomplishments. While South African runner Oscar Pistorious sprinted towards the tape in his first Olympic semifinal race, the rover Curiosity barreled towards a very different finish line about 35 million miles distant.

The very human achievement of Pistorius, who as a double amputee has had to overcome so much just to compete in the Olympics, strikes me initially. Kudos to his mother, by the way, for encouraging him to do everything boys with human legs could do. I’m also in awe, however, of the advances in technology that allowed him to compete in the first place. The fiber carbon Cheetah Flex Foot blades he runs on have sparked a wide-ranging debate over whether he has an unfair advantage over able-bodied runners. Yet, they are scientifically designed to emulate the biological leg generating no bionic power.

This offers parents and teachers an ideal opportunity to encourage students’ interest in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

Steven Stanhope, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Delaware wrote a very compelling piece in the Huffington Post about why we can’t take this moment for granted.

Then there’s the Curiosity, racing toward the surface of Mars at about 13,000 miles per hour with everything riding on its ability to stop 25 feet and then maneuver through a series of precisely calculated steps to ensure a safe landing. Scientists who worked on this moment for years were chewing their fingernails, crying, cheering, hugging and clapping as they watched from the control room. It was an amazing bit of science, and the pictures the rover has sent back to us here on earth are titillating.

These are wonderful feats of science and technology. We can replace a man’s legs with apparatuses that allow him to compete against the fastest runners in the world; and we can land a remote-controlled bio-lab on the surface of another planet and receive images at near light speed. These are just two examples in hundreds of thousands of ways that workers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines are striving to improve our health and the quality of our lives. Think of people such as Dr. Christiaan Barnard who performed the first human heart transplant, or Steve Jobs who worked to give us faster, lighter laptops.

Inventors of such technology learn to persevere in the face of being told what they were trying to accomplish is impossible. They must trust that their work is worth it.

This is the kind of ingenuity and drive we would like to see in the students who will fill seats in our STEM classes as they return to school this fall. We want them to dream that their creativity and their inventions can change the lives of people both on the surface of this planet, and those whose work takes them a bit further afield.

I know Oscar Pistorious must be thankful for the work of the scientists who perfected his blades. I know I’m thankful to get to witness the effects of such triumphs.

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Last updated on August 13, 2012