Oct 18 2013

Jack Andraka Loves Science — and Thinks More Kids Should Too

The 2012 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair winner explains why science education matters.

As those who saw me win the grand prize at last year’s Intel International Science and Engineering Fair can ­attest, science can be both exciting and rewarding. Embracing the subject has changed my life.

I love talking to teachers and ­students about STEM and, in ­particular, science — what they’re doing now and what they’d like to accomplish. But sometimes, I hear things that are discouraging: among them, that “people already know that STEM is important” or that it’s “just a buzzword” or “something parents tell their kids to major in.”

Although President Obama ­mentioned STEM education in his 2013 State of the Union address, and more districts are launching STEM programs, students aren’t flocking to these subjects in droves. The question is, why?

Convincing the Masses

Just because someone tells a young person that STEM is important doesn’t mean that he or she understands how it translates into important life skills. Telling kids that studying science and other STEM subjects can lead to well-paying jobs is compelling. But when U.S. News & World Report notes that 60 percent of students who begin high school interested in STEM change their minds by the time they graduate, it’s clear that more needs to be done.

The fact is, children are born ­curious. They grow up asking “Why?” and discovering what happens when they change variables in their environment. And then somewhere in their schooling, for many of them, that joy of discovery disappears.

Thankfully, my parents nurtured my passion for learning by never ­answering my questions directly. Instead, they showed me how to find the answers in books and online and helped me learn the scientific method so I could structure my questions in ways I could test.

It’s so important for schools to teach the scientific method early in a child’s educational development and continue to reinforce it so that students can make sense of what they’re learning.

It’s also important for young ­people to discover that science has relevance in their everyday lives and grows in difficulty as they, too, grow. Just as a young football player must start off with easy plays and acquire skills in order to progress to more sophisticated ones, students need to learn that science is a ­subject that must be practiced and will become more difficult as they progress. The same logic applies to the study of engineering, math and, yes, even technology.

Contrary to what some might ­believe, science education benefits everyone. Teachers need to engage young people in science early and help them learn how to discover and interpret for themselves. Students, meanwhile, should take the most challenging classes possible so they are ready for any career opportunity they may ultimately decide to pursue.

I was just 15 years old when I began developing the sensor to detect pancreatic cancer that ultimately led to my triumph at the Intel ISEF. When I started, I didn’t even know what a pancreas was. But a passion for both science and learning led to something much bigger than me. It can do the same for your students.

Science Sensation

The video of Jack Andraka’s enthusiastic response to winning the Gordon E. Moore Award in the Medicine and Health Sciences category at the 2012 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair went viral, attracting nearly 800,000 views since it was posted on YouTube in May 2012.

Andraka’s winning invention is a dipstick-like paper sensor that detects the presence of pancreatic cancer’s biomarker protein, called mesothelin, with more than 90 percent accuracy.

Learn more at jackandraka.net and our interview with him from last year.