Toy Sharks to Face Your Fears: A STEM Like Me Story.

A real-life story about making connections in STEM:

I had a wonderful experience with the STEM Like Me program, and I want to share it with you. A lucky coincidence makes it a great story about human connection. First I need to explain how I use toy sharks for education, but I think it is worth reading all the way to the end just for the unexpected ending.


 Getting ready for STEM Like Me

I wasn’t ready when I was asked to participate in STEM Like Me, a new program that brings STEM practitioners to schools in Washington’s Mid-Columbia region. I may know my science, but I did not have a STEM hands-on activity kit ready for interacting with the students. To solve that problem I did what any respectable scientists with some training in communication and shoestring budget will do, build his own kit:

  • First, I tried to learn what the students wanted to hear about STEM from me. That was easy: “Oceans and sharks” was at the top of the list.
  • Second, I built a storytelling arch in my mind, a story that had a student I recently met as my intended audience.
  • Third, I went to a store and searched for toy sharks on sale. With the materials I had on hand, the story finally took solid form.

Toy sharks, and a personal confession.

Wen I talk with the students, the story starts with a personal confession: I was afraid of the ocean when I was a kid. Waves and surf scared me. Can you imagine an Oceanographer that is afraid of the ocean? Well, I faced my fears when I was 10-11 years old. Thanks to being able to face my fears I am now an Oceanographer, and some of the happiest times of my life have been at sea. In parallel I talk about sharks, their unbelievable keen senses ( I did my PhD in electroreception) and how diverse and wonderful sharks and rays are.

Hands-on with the sharks:

The students get to grab some toy sharks, rays, and marine mammals. I instruct them to separate the toys in three categories, sharks (tiburones), rays (rayas), and others (otros). After separating them correctly I tell them there is still a toy that is wrongly categorized, actually, it can’t be found in nature.

There a couple of really weird-looking sharks and rays, and students point at them, but the incorrect toy is the blood-thirsty shark that looks more like the one in “Jaws” or “Sharknado”. The artist probably copied a movie poster and forgot to put the right number of gills on it. I finish by wondering what amazing things can we learn about sharks if we face our fears about them?



The coincidence that made all the pieces come together:

This explanation was to give you the context for the most wonderful of the coincidences. Do you remember I had in mind a particular student as my intended audience when I designed my story? She happen to be a student in the school I got to test my new STEM Like Me shark kit. She is a soft-spoken, self-driven, bilingual girl. I believe she will do very well either as a STEM professional or at any other career she chooses to work at. But when I first met her, she seemed to be looking at STEM with skepticism, maybe a little bit of fear, like somebody that is staring at the rough seas from the the shore.

I designed my story having her on mind. Part inspired by what she told me, part inspired for what I wish I have told her when I first talked with her. I wanted to tell her it was OK to have fears, but facing them may bring wonderful benefits. In other words, smart people may take risks that could bring them to a life of fulfillment and knowledge.

At the end of my activity with the toy sharks at her school, one of the students was really excited and he told me: “I learned that sharks are awesome!”. That made me happy. Then, I saw my “intended audience” student leaving to the next table. I was wondering what did she learn?

She turned around, she smiled and told me: “ I learned I should face my fears. Thanks!”

Such a beautiful blue expanse to explore, but so many unknowns lurking under the water. Should she jump in the ocean or not?

This is not a story about salvation

It was a great feeling to hear the words “I learned I should face my fears”. But I do not believe I designed a magic kit in a plastic box that brings instant courage for students. This story is about personal connections. I am a fortunate guy that got to study wonderful animals partly because when I was her age I decided I wasn’t afraid of the ocean any more, and jumped into the breaking waves. My story connected with her, she saw her experience somehow reflected in my experience, and that was really good. But this story is also about being able to reassure students. It should tell them their daily courage and efforts are appreciated. This particular student helped me translate some of the Spanish words I used in front of her classmates, and braved sentences in her rusty Spanish. She was taking after-school classes with a science component already. She was already taking steps that required overcoming her fears, steps that can bring happiness to her future.

I wish she had told me “I learned I should keep facing my fears”. I wish the conversation had made clear she is already doing an awesome job, that kids in general are already doing an awesome job. But there are always imperfections in the happy endings… and I know I still can improve the story inside the box for the next school visit. After all, toy sharks are a fun, multi-purpose, STEM education prop.

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