Like the madcap 1963 movie "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World," our culture today moves at a crazy pace. The movie starts with a phenomenon we're all very familiar with: a traffic jam. Today, we're often surrounded by various aspects of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM)—as well as traffic. Can you imagine what people of 1963 would think of our society? From self-parking cars (and even self-driving cars!) to super-computers in our pockets. we're living in a kind of science fiction world. But with instantaneous news, the latest gotta-have-it gadgets, and what seems like an infinite amount of apps, it's easy to get overwhelmed. Don't be. Take a deep breath. Take a moment to think about what's actually important: friends and family, loved ones.
STEM is our tool; we control it, it doesn't control us.
While the movie characters scrambled around almost randomly, hopefully we don't do that. Knowing more about STEM can help us be in control. Science is a very broad topic and includes fields from Archeology to Zoology, and everything in between. Science enables us to understand everything in our world from the smallest particles called quarks to the vast universe itself.
Probably the most valuable aspect of science for the typical person is the scientific method. The scientific method is a process that enables us to address challenges in a logical and systematic way. Very generally we could characterize the scientific method as: observe, hypothesize, test, repeat as necessary. As an example, let's say I observe my home is total chaos in the morning when my family's all trying to get out the door. I can then brainstorm, or hypothesize, possible solutions such as: do more preparation the night before (e.g. lay out outfits, make lunches, and/or pack backpacks and briefcases). An alternative hypothesis might be: we're too tired, so everyone should go to bed thirty minutes earlier, or everyone should be screen-free for an hour before bed. The point is to think of solutions and then test them out methodically. If they work: mission accomplished. If not, hypothesize another solution and then test it out... Thus, even if you aren't a scientist, you can still use the methods of scientists.
The technology we have access to enables us to be much more informed than those movie characters. Technology and engineering are very closely related, of course. Engineering is the means and methods by which we create technology. Technology exists to help human beings. Where would we be without the inventions of the printing press, electricity, Penicillin, and the internal combustion engine? Technology saves lives, from defibrillators to insulin pumps. In modern times, personal computers and the internet have revolutionized our lives and our society. An iteration of these, cell phones, may make our lives crazy sometimes, but there's no doubt they facilitate communication. They also give us an almost infinite amount of information at our fingertips. And, oh yeah, physicians are increasingly finding tech like iPads invaluable.
Who knows how technology will impact our lives in the future? There are indications that 3D printing might cause a revolution in medicine. We might even see helpful nanorobots in our bloodstreams, and free personalized genome sequencing for everyone. Thus, technology, and the engineers who make it, are our friends, and possibly lifesavers.
As many successful movies rely on a three-act structure (setup, confrontation, resolution), STEM relies on a mathematical structure. Mathematics is at the core of all science, technology and engineering. The thing to keep in mind about math is it's logical and follows rational rules. Don't be afraid or intimidated by math. It's just another tool we can use if we need to.
The movie is a fictional treasure hunt, but a STEM career could be a real-life way to achieve success. According to the U.S. Department of Education, "The United States has developed as a global leader, in large part, through the genius and hard work of its scientists, engineers, and innovators. In a world that’s becoming increasingly complex, where success is driven not only by what you know, but by what you can do with what you know, it’s more important than ever for our youth to be equipped with the knowledge and skills to solve tough problems, gather and evaluate evidence, and make sense of information."
If you are at all interested in STEM, there are huge opportunities in STEM fields. STEM is among the fastest growing sectors of the economy and STEM salaries are among the highest. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, "STEM occupations are projected to grow by 17.0 percent from 2008 to 2018... STEM workers command higher wages, earning 26 percent more than their non-STEM counterparts." We need people to help make these new scientific and technological discoveries. Consider a career in STEM!
One of the best aspects of this particular movie was its madcap humor and comedy. As we navigate our STEM-intensive world, we should keep our sense of humor, because, after all, laughter is the best medicine—no matter what the year.
About Lesley L. Smith, Ph.D.
Lesley L. Smith, Ph.D. has earned a plethora of degrees, including a M.S. and a Ph.D. in Elementary Particle Physics. In 2012, she added to her collection by completing her MFA in Writing Popular Fiction at Seton Hill University. Dr. Smith’s short science fiction has been published in several venues, such as "Analog Science Fiction and Fact," "Daily Science Fiction," and Nano Meets Macro. She is an active member of the Science Fiction/Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) and Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers (RMFW), and is also the founder and editor of Electric Spec.
Dr. Smith has held a variety of scientific jobs, including investigating quarks, dark matter, extrasolar planets, clouds, atmospheric chemistry, and global warming. She has worked for a variety of research institutions, while her nonfiction articles have been published in venues that include the Physical Review and Modern Physics Letters. She is a long-time member of the The American Physical Society (APS) and The American Geophysical Union (AGU).
For more information, connect with Dr. Smith on her website: LesleylSmith.com
Note from Elizabeth Hamilton-Guarino, Best Ever You:
While career paths in science, technology, engineering and math are often lauded as the way of the future, they are stuck in the past in one significant way: gender diversity. In the U.S. alone, women make up 46 percent of the civilian labor force but only 26 percent of STEM occupations. New graduates entering the workforce will not help close this gender gap—only about 18 percent of women take STEM courses at the university level and women make up just 31 percent of the total STEM graduate population.
But what can be done to encourage more diversity in STEM careers? Particle physicist Lesley L. Smith, Ph.D. is determined to help foster that change. The recipient of a number of impressive degrees, including a M.S. and a Ph.D. in Elementary Particle Physics from University of Kansas, Dr. Smith has turned to science fiction writing in order to spread the word on the evolving world of physics and the scientists who work with it.
"People are still surprised when they find out I'm a physicist," Dr. Smith reveals. "They invariably say they thought physicists were old white guys. I'm here to say: nope! We come in all shapes, sizes, colors, genders, orientations, and every other variety you can think of."
Through her writings, which range from her newest novel The Quantum Copto a medley of short stories, Dr. Smith has strived to make physics accessible, entertaining and understandable for readers everywhere, especially for women and other underrepresented groups in STEM fields.