When Cooper Yerby was six years old, he wanted to be a pilot. But, like most young children, as he grew up, his opinion changed. A few years later, he wanted to be a meteorologist, then a plastic surgeon, then a chemical engineer.
But as a senior at Olathe North High School in the state of Kansas, Yerby is surer about his career trajectory than he’s ever been. With a semester left before graduation, Yerby has applied to 11 different schools -- among them Tulane, Princeton, and a university in Singapore – to pursue geology as a major.
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If there’s a common thread in his passions growing up, it’s been STEM: An acronym widely used and promoted over the last several years that stands for science, technology, engineering, and math.
“I’ve always known I want to be a STEM major,” Yerby said. “My entire life, I’ve been on a STEM path.”
But what pushed him from chemical engineering to geology was a competition he entered more than a year ago.
Battle of the Brains
This year, Kansas City, Missouri-based engineering, architecture, and construction consultancy Burns and McDonnell teamed up with the city’s Union Station to put on for the second time, a competition for kindergarten through twelfth-grade students called Battle of the Brains. The underlying mission of the competition is to encourage participation and interest in students to pursue careers in STEM-related fields.
"I never thought about a potential career path like this had it not been for Battle of the Brains."
Over the course of a year, students throughout the Kansas City metro area competed against each other in teams for a chance to win, as a grand prize for two groups, a permanent exhibit in Union Station’s interactive Science City.
Greg Graves, chairman and CEO of Burns and McDonnell, said when the firm was trying to figure out exactly how to structure the competition for the first go-around in 2009, they decided they wanted it to be student centric.
“We came up with the idea to put money on the next Science City exhibit and in a session while we were discussing what it should be, we decided to just let kids decide,” Graves said. “I never dreamed hundreds of schools would take off with this idea. It exceeded my greatest expectation.”
For this competition, which began in 2013, nearly 200 schools and 3,500 students applied to compete in the challenge for the next exhibit.
There were two categories: One for elementary-school aged children, and one for middle and high school students. Leawood Elementary School won in their category for an exhibit they called “Genetics: Unlock the Code,” which shows visitors to the exhibit how a body works at its most basic level, one cell at a time.
Yerby’s group at Olathe North High School won in their division, and designed an exhibit they called “Every Last Drop,” which helps visitors understand interaction between life and water, how humans use water, and dangers over water scarcity in the world.
Both winning teams received $50,000 to use toward STEM studies and the opportunity to work alongside professionals in the industry – engineers and archetects from Burns and McDonnell to bring their ideas to life at Science City.
For Yerby, the chance to compete was a no brainer.
When his high school entered the competition in its first year, he saw how much fun the students had learning about their topic. He vowed to participate if Burns and McDonnell decided to host the competition a second time…and he did.
“I actually got to sit in the meetings during the last year of the other team’s experience. So I saw all the opportunities they had to work with the Burns and McDonnell engineers,” Yerby said. “I wanted to get into a STEM career, and so I thought this would open more avenues for future career opportunities.”
After Yerby and his team found out they were winners, they entered a ten-month period where they worked with engineers to help make their exhibit idea a reality.
“The engineers treated us like we were a working team in a working environment,” he said. “We were invited to the firm onece or twice a month and we would go into a big meeting room for a couple of hours and all brainstorm to come up with ideas how to proceed. It was fun because they let us have a lot of input how the exhibit would be shaped, and our ideas were translated into reality.”
When the months of meetings and planning and designing came to an end, the students weren’t able to see their concepts come to life until an official unveiling ceremony. Yerby said the time in between the completion of the planning stages and actually getting to touch his ideas in person was an anxious period.
“I’d only seen drawings and sketches; I had no idea what it would really look like, I just had renderings in my head,” he said.
But when that curtain came down and the exhibits were revealed, it was total joy for him.
“I was so blown away by the amount of people who came to support us that day and grateful for all the amazing work the engineering firm did for us,” he said.
Graves noted the feeling was mutual.
“I spent the morning shaking hands with parents who are full of pure happiness that their children were involved in an opportunity like this,” he said. “It makes you stop worrying about tomorrow’s generation.”
Investing in STEM for the Future
After months of planning and research and anticipation, you might think Yerby would feel a kind of hole that needs to be filled, a disappointment, in a sense, that the thrill has come to an end.
But it’s the exact opposite.
“After doing Battle of the Brains, I found out I had a passion with water and I wanted to continue research,” he said. “I contacted Kansas State University about doing a water project that monitors the microbiological properties of ground water from Bagledesh, analyzing them for a variety of pathogens.”
He said working with the researchers at the university has lead them to find new techniques for arsenic mitigation there.
“It’s lead me to present at conferences in Vancouver and San Franciso. I never thought about a potential career path like this had it not been for Battle of the Brains,” Yerby noted.
Gail Hardinge, executive director of the STEM Education Alliance at the College of William and Mary, said competitions like the ones Burns and McDonnell helped sponsor are a great way to expose children to new opportunities – especially in STEM education.
“It gives them an opportunity to have mentors in the field, those combinations of activities are what provides the support and excitement for students,” she said. “But competitions are just part of the puzzle.
Hardinge noted the challenge isn’t just getting students involved in STEM – it’s more about helping students become better prepared to deal with challenges of a career.
She said to think of the learning process as if it’s a rope with two strands: One is STEM content, and the other is STEM pedagogy – critical thinking skills, use of inquiry in teaching, and problem-solving skills.
“We have a society of children who can’t handle frustration. One of the biggest problems beyond STEM is children live in a want-it-right-now society,” she said. “So when a problem doesn’t work, and they learn frustration tolerance, those will be successful skills to have as employees down the road. In STEM careers, it requires a lot more of not knowing (the answers right away).”
Part of the solution, is competitions like Battle of the Brains because it creates structure around a project, which then allows for an exciting end that children want to achieve.
“When you saw (engineers) working with students, part of what they were doing was teaching children to problem solve in a competitive context. Kids like to compete – we’ve tried to offer ways that don’t involve competition, and they don’t tend to work as well…when they earn (something), it changes the game,” Hardinge said.