The Research Triangle Park

Catch Some STEMpathy

By Sep 03, 2015
  
Watch Brett Brenton speak to the RTP 180 crowd about the connection between STEM and empathy.

Word creation seems to be a pretty popular habit these days.  It has been around for a while (remember Brangelina?), but people seem to be putting it to greater use in society and pop culture.  I view it as a linguistically creative process, one that helps sharpen the wit and find new ways to deliver a message, especially if you do it on the fly.  More on that later.

I recently had the privilege of taking part in a RTP 180 event as a speaker.  180s consist of lighting talks from various speakers on topics that change from month to month.  In August, RTP 180 was on STEM, which is the very focus of the program I oversee – US2020 RTP.  The goal of the program is to make connections between the STEM industry and youth-serving organizations in the Triangle so that we can move more kids towards a STEM career path while also diversifying the STEM workforce.  It’s great work – a fantastic mission and fertile grounds to play facilitator in.

As I prepped for my 180 speech, a thought kept creeping in that really tied together all that we do in a pretty simple and effective way.  I kept reflecting on the basic premise of the program – trying to get people to consider the lot of others and how someone’s entire world could be altered for the better if the person had good knowledge of what opportunities existed.  There’s a role for our current batch of STEM professionals to play outside of the workplace, one in which they serve as inspirers of great things, one person at a time. 

The basic gist of all this is empathy. We are more driven to help others when we are more knowledgeable and considerate of the challenges they face and the promise they hold in overcoming them.  Once we come to understand, on an intimate level, what it is they go through, we are activated internally to assist them in their journey.  This feeling/ability is inside each of us, and we activate it in different ways and at different levels. 

I’ve always trumpeted the mantra that perspective is everything.  When in the classroom, I taught that sentiment to every student that walked into my social studies classes.  It’s invaluable knowledge.  Once you understand that a person can only know what their perspective has allowed them to know, it’s easier to identify and communicate with them. That’s when our empathic side can truly come alive.

The perspective of many of the children that we serve at US2020 is a limited one. These children don’t take summer trips, go to camps, and participate in events at the same rate.  A visit to a museum that might inspire one student to take up a passion for animals or airplanes or climate, might never occur for another student.  The result is some students end up with an enriched perspective, while others have a very limited one.

Even qualities like creativity, critical thought, and confidence are bolstered by having positive experiences and growing one’s perspective.  These potentialities lay latent, waiting to be activated.  That is where a mentor can have the greatest effect.  A mentor has the ability to close the perspective gap simply by creating a relationship.

Mentoring is a doorway for growth, not only of the individual being mentored but also of the individual doing the mentoring.  When you mentor at a significant rate, you immerse yourself in the experiences of those on the receiving end.  You come to understand what they know and what they don’t, what they have experienced and what they have, and what perspective they have and what perspective they lack. 

One of the great hesitations to becoming involved in mentoring is the fear of what a student will be like – of how they’ll react to us.  Each school year, up to the last, I would have some anxiety before the first day of classes.  A whole swath of kids would be walking into my classroom, many of whom I did not know.  I worried that I wouldn’t say the right things, that I wouldn’t be a welcome voice in their lives.  Those worries always quickly subsided and soon the authentic nature of the relationship we were creating eclipsed any anxiety I had initially brought to the table.

I believe this kind of experience is true for everyone building new relationships.  Relationships prosper when good energy is poured into them, no matter who the people involved are, no matter what their backgrounds may be.  The hardest part is taking that first step – simply in making the decision to engage and walking through the door.

Our region is especially rich in STEM as a resource, which means there is infinite potential for qualified mentors.  We have a disproportionately high rate of opportunity in the technology and AgBio fields.  STEM is a legitimate pathway to success for those with the means to take advantage of it.

The Triangle region is also overly abundant with people who struggle on an economic level.  Two in five children in Wake and Durham counties come from an economically disadvantaged background.  Every day, they wake up with less – less food, less abundance, less opportunity. 

To me, the two above facts create both a challenge and a solution.  We have a tremendous resource, and we have a tremendous number of people who could benefit from that resource.  This is a challenge that goes beyond the school walls.  It requires a dedicated group of people who can see past themselves.  People who have a tremendous story to share.  A story that can inspire others simply by coming to understand that they can make it their own – that they can forge their own path with this confidence.

Newspaper columnist George Matthew Adams once said, “There is no such thing as a ‘self-made’ man.  We are made up of thousands of others.  Everyone who has ever done a kind deed for us, or spoken one word of encouragement to us, has entered into the make-up of our character and of our thoughts, as well as our success.”  This is true for the greatest of us and the ‘least’ of us.  Some of us just had more exposure to these acts than others.  But we have the ability to sway that imbalance.  In fact, if not us, then who?

So let’s bring it back to word creation.  Admittedly a bit corny (I did mention the AgBio stuff, didn’t I?), I’d like to see the birth of a STEMpathy movement, right here in the Triangle.  I’d like to see people explore a side of themselves that they hadn’t fully manifested or didn’t know existed, all so that we can inspire a new generation, a more diverse generation, to take advantage of what this wonderful region has to offer.

Take this as your call to action – your chance to contribute in a very personal way.  Find your best self, and show it off to those who would benefit most from it.  There is no greater legacy you could leave.

Brett is the Project Director of US2020 RTP.  To learn more, head to http://www.rtp.org/about-us/us2020

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