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STEM Education 6: How to Guide a Nerd

Students whose high school curricula are flexible can more easily develop and follow their God-given talents

STEM nerd parents and educators need four principles to identify nerds and bring them to a healthy and fulfilling maturity. We here present the first two: identification and nurture in the fundamentals of STEM disciplines

1. Identification of the nerd

The human body has many parts, but all its many parts form one body (see: I Corinthians 12:12a). So it also is with God-given gifts, distributed over humanity. Nerds are only one part of the body. Only nerds should be encouraged to pursue STEM nerd degrees. Trying to force a contra-nerd to be a STEM nerd is like trying to force Donald Trump to be humble. It’s not in his nature.

I received my undergraduate education at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Indiana. Rose-Hulman catered only to nerds. Engineering, science, and math degrees were awarded. Liberal arts, foreign languages, and humanities classes were offered as part of the curriculum but there were no corresponding degrees. At my freshman convocation, an institutionally entrenched Professor Herman Moench asked us to look at the person seated to the right of us and then the one to the left. “One of these people will not leave Rose-Hulman with a degree.” In other words, half of those starting their STEM nerd undergraduate education would fail.1

Some of my fellow freshman were there because they were encouraged by their parents and teachers to enter a technical field on account of the prestige and the relatively high pay. Others were there because they did well enough in math and science in high school. But many were not prepared for the rigor of the adult versions of these disciplines. Being a STEM nerd student is hard work. Some students in my freshman class were the cream that floated to the top of their high school classes because they found science and math easy. But no matter how naturally smart you are, there is always someone smarter. And the cream becomes thicker and more concentrated as the nerd progresses through college and then graduate school. Learning ultimately becomes hard even for smart students. Those who are unwilling to work will fall off the nerd express.

Professor Moench was right. Fellow freshmen started dropping like machine-gunned zombies. Keith, my dorm roommate at Rose-Hulman, was a graduate of a top military academy. My best friends in the dorm were Steve, John, Hal, and Tobias. And none of them made it. Tobias, to take one example, had received a perfect score on his SATs. He was an example of a naturally bright but lazy student. I’ve since lost contact with them all.

What about the nerds who do graduate? For admission to graduate school, the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is the equivalent of the SAT required for undergraduate admissions. But it is not the only thing that a graduate admissions committee takes into account. Some students float through high school and some also float through their undergraduate degrees. Lazy STEM nerds, no matter how gifted, typically make poor graduate students. Creative research and good substantive journal papers are a lot of work. If a high school student has high SAT scores and a low grade point average, chances are they are lazy.

But assuming a willingness to work, not all nerds are created equal. Some thrive in a laboratory or in the field, where they physically interact with their science and technology. Others enjoy writing computer code that, models their discipline, or engaging in descriptive and revealing mathematics. Such nerds are often referred to as pursuing theory while the hands-on nerd is often said to be engaged in practical research. And that is one of my pet peeves. Although theoretical and practical are commonly differentiated, the distinction is inaccurate. Solid theory is very practical. We should rather distinguish between theoretical and applied aspects of a given discipline which needs both to thrive.

Ultimately, the nerd must self-identify. Parents and educators can offer advice but, as a red-blooded libertarian-leaning American, I believe each individual, right or wrong, must ultimately make a personal (hopefully informed) decision and live with it. I stress this because some cultures do not let nerds self-identify; governments impose hard constraints, based on tests. One example of how to do it wrong comes from Japan. If I lived in Japan, I would probably not be a STEM nerd today.

How do I know? The International Conference on Fuzzy Systems (FUZZ-IEEE) was held in Yokohama in March 1995. It was the first IEEE conference on fuzzy logic ever held in Japan—the country that pioneered fuzzy logic AI applications. It was also the largest technical fuzzy conference ever held there. My train ride from Narita airport outside of Tokyo was uneventful except for two things. First, some Japanese cult terrorists gassed the subway between Tokyo and Yokohama killing 13 people and sickening thousands of others.2 Because I was then traveling between Tokyo and Yokohama, my family back in the United States became quite anxious. They sent notes to the hotel, seven of them in fact, to find out if I was safe (this was before cell phones).

Image result for japan tourism bureau

But I didn’t know that because I had got off the train at the wrong stop. I had no idea where I was and the signs didn’t help. They were all in Japanese and Japanese characters are impossible to look up in a dictionary. I wandered around with all my luggage, the perfect image of a lost tourist. A friendly Japanese man, wearing a business suit with a loosened end-of-the-day necktie, approached and asked where I was going. I showed him a flyer from the conference and he laughed: “You got off tlain to soon. No ploblem.” (Japanese and Chinese speakers have difficulty distinguishing between r’s and l’s.)

I cannot recall the man’s name; I think of him as Teriyaki. He picked up my luggage and started to walk. I just watched without moving. He stopped, looked at me, and motioned with his head for me to follow.“Come. No ploblem.” I followed him to a ticket kiosk where he put my luggage down and deposited fare for both of us to the next train stop. He insisted not only on carrying my luggage to the train but riding with me to the next stop. On the train, I smelled his breath for the first time and realized that he was drunk. Obviously, he was the type of drunk who becomes overly friendly. When we arrive at the proper stop, Teriyaki carried my luggage to the hotel.”I buy you dlink” he offered. I don’t drink alcohol, but I said I’d love a glass of carbonated mineral water, so off we went to the hotel bar. I soon learned that he was drinking to cover the sting of receiving his eldest son’s latest test scores.

He explained that in Japan, students are given state tests at various points in their matriculation. That’s how STEM nerds are identified. The outcomes determine lifelong vocations. If they flunk the first test, their career ceiling is, say, window-washing. If the second test is failed, their career hopes may include a higher-level profession. Teriyaki’s son had just flunked one of these tests and could not now go to college. Teriyaki had lost face due to this and was chugging sake to forget. He drank more sake and got drunker. I drank glass after glass of carbonated water and got more bloated. He told me, Japan is bad. The houses are little, the tests are unfair, and the government keeps everybody poor so the country can be financially prosperous. Faced with a guy who needed cheering up, I did my best.

Afterward, I walked away thinking that I do not like Japan’s universal testing approach to identify STEM nerds. Nerds need to self-identify. Government sorting, as is done in Japan, causes parents to get depressed and drunk. Of course, I then called my wife Monika and repeated the hoary quip attributed to Mark Twain, “Rumors of my death are greatly exaggerated.”

2. An emphasis on fundamentals

The second principle for growing successful STEM nerds is similar to an important principle for growing plants. Plant fertilizer has three components.

● Nitrogen for leaf growth.
● Phosphorus for development of roots, flowers, and fruit.
● Potassium for strong stems.

Initially, emphasis must be placed on growing healthy roots. New nerds should not be encouraged to grow flowers and fruit. A plant with shallow roots and skinny stems will soon wither and die.

Students whose high school curricula are flexible can more easily develop and follow their God-given talents. Homeschooling by attentive parents is the perfect environment for this. My wife and I spent a lot of time homeschooling our three children. All went on to college and are now engaged in rewarding careers. None of my children, it turns out, were nerds. But two of my professor colleagues in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department at Baylor were also homeschooled. In both cases, homeschooling allowed their nerd talents to grow deep roots and ultimately flower.

It’s a different story with more regimented public high school curricula. In Texas, non-nerds need only master algebra. But due to the current enthusiasm for STEM advancement, nerd curriculum in some high schools has been accelerated, often at the cost of a shaky foundation. I was recently surprised to find that students in a public high school could take courses in differential equations, a course that should be attempted only after mastery of calculus. While an ambitious program sounds like a great idea at first, I wonder what has been sacrificed to get the student to differential equations? Has a solid foundation been laid via algebra, trigonometry, analytic geometry, precalculus, and calculus? Have students been taught critical thinking and shown the beauty of developing mathematical systems from a set of axioms? A math teacher I spoke to recently at a local high school shares my concern. Many students are processed much too quickly through math curricula. Checking boxes next to a topic question does not address quality or depth of understanding.

Coaches understand the importance of basics and drill their athletes repeatedly on fundamentals. When strong basics are emphasized, a well-trained athlete knows how to respond in almost any situation, even one never encountered before. Without a strong foundation, the ability of STEM nerds to reason through problems is diminished. Not enough fertilizer has been directed to the development of the roots and the stem.

Over-accelerated development has also made its way into university undergraduate curricula. When I was a new professor, the term “undergraduate research” was considered an oxymoron. One did not get involved in meaningful research until fundamentals were firmly entrenched via one’s undergraduate education. Research was reserved for graduate school. Those who disagree will point to undergraduates who have meaningfully contributed to research efforts and are listed as co-authors of scholarly publications. But most of this so-called research is grunt work. There is, of course, the rare savant and undergraduates can also serve effectively as paid hourly workers in the lab. But an undergraduate is rarely the source of creativity in research. More importantly, to what degree does this kind of work detract from establishing needed fundamentals? Is the flower being sought here at the expense of the health of the root?

Why has undergraduate research become a common component in bachelor’s degrees? The simple answer is that undergraduate research gives the university bragging rights. Only cool universities, their publicity says, have undergraduates that do research and get their names on papers. The price they pay is stunted roots. We’ll continue with the final two principles of growing successful nerds in our next installment.

1 Here’s a good nerd problem. How would the audience need to be seated if every student with a colleague on both sides were such that exactly one of these people would not graduate and the other one would?

2 Scott Neumann, “Japan Executes Cult Leader Responsible For 1995 Sarin Gas Attack On Tokyo Subway” NPR, July 6, 2018

This post is the sixth in a series on the Identification, Nurturing and Maturation of the Uncommon Nerd. See also:

STEM EDUCATION 1. STEM Education 1. Pursuing Nerd Quality Over Nerd Quantity

STEM EDUCATION 2. Stem Education 2. Not Everyone is Lucky Enough to Be A Nerd

STEM EDUCATION 3. Killing People and Breaking Things Modern history suggests that military superiority driven by technology can be a key factor in deterring aggression and preventing mass fatalities

STEM Education 4. Do STEM Nerds Need to Learn Latin? Well-roundedness is appropriate in applied STEM curricula to the extent that it rounds out the skills necessary for success as a STEM professional.

Stem Education 5: What difference do family and privilege make to success? Robert J. Marks: A strong family helps a STEM nerd succeed. However, a “strong family” is not necessarily a family that had an easy ride, as my own story shows.

Robert J. Marks is the Director of the Walter Bradley Center for Natural and Artificial Intelligence and holds the position of Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Baylor University.

Also by Robert Marks: Why we can’t just ban killer robots


Ai That Can Read Minds? Deconstructing AI hype

STEM Education 6: How to Guide a Nerd