STEM to the Extreme

Christopher Meyer

“I say stem, you say excel. Stem, excel! Stem, excel!
I say stem, you say excel. Stem, excel! Stem, excel!”
This was our roudy chant throughout the week of STEM-X (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics to the Extreme) in Baltimore this summer. Imagine the noise that fifty high-schoolers can make, then add to that the encouragement of adult mentors and Federation staff—and finally include the riling up of Anil Lewis, and you realize it was a real cacophony we made. But this wasn’t the only noise the STEM-X students made in Baltimore. In fact, they actually saved our country from a deadly comet!

Before I go any further, one might ask, “So what was STEM-X, exactly?” As the name implies, it was a camp organized by the National Federation of the Blind, focusing on the broad subjects of science, mathematics and applied fields. More than fifty blind students attended from across the country, representing a wide range of interests AND backgrounds. These were, by all respects, very bright and capable teenagers who wanted to pursue a week of learning—and, of course, fun.

Now back to that comit. It was hurtling toward Planet Earth (or so the story goes), and the STEM-X team had just one week to rescue the entire East Coast of the United States. The students had been conveniently split into five brainy teams: chemistry, robotics, computing, aerospace, and civil engineering. It was time to get to work.

Each took up the call to action. The chemists distilled ethanol into biofuel; the computer technologists mapped social media trends to aid the president in evacuations. In civil engineering, a pedestrian land bridge was fabricated; in aerospace, a human-guided spacecraft was built; and finally, the robotics team designed a modular comit rover to explore the approaching threat. These and other projects came together to save millions of lives. And though this was, of course, just a scenario to get a few laughs and bring together the teams, it really did show what these blind students can achieve.

So what did we learn at STEM-X that week? Besides a scientific excuse to follow Twitter trends, the high-schoolers were immersed in a constructive atmosphere of successful blind adults. These mentors and instructors ranged from former Army engineers, doctoral chemistry students, and computer coders to business students, rehabilitation instructors, and more. Some mentors, myself included, weren’t there for our science know-how, but for sharing the all-important positive attitudes of blindness. And this is what we did.

As a STEM-X mentor, I had many chances to encourage my students. At times I was too busy chasing them around campus to see it happen, but thinking back helps. I would suggest one student use her cane to avoid tripping over a curb next time. I would take two students aside specifically and walk through the cafeteria line with trays in hand. A few times I’d call ahead to another mentor and ask him to give me a hand with my gaggle of students who never quite stayed together. Even as I was mentoring, I was learning how to lead and be a better team player, too.

STEM-X saved us from a (metaphorical) comit, but I think it also did much more. I saw new friendships form and attitudes change. One of my students carried a cane patiently all week for the first time—and even took it on the plane trip home without my nagging. Another student, initially hesitant about his college prospects, explained he wanted to consider out-of-state options for a chemistry major by our last day together. In these two instances, and several more, I couldn’t have been more proud. By seeing the small and large improvements these young adults made, I was rewarded more than I could have asked for. At the end of our week, I was chanting “STEM EXCEL, STEM EXCEL” as loud as the rest of them.