Muirlands MIddle School hosts inaugural STEAM Career Day in La Jolla

Finally! An answer to the age-old student question, often posed during math or science class: “When am I ever going to use this in real life?”

The insight came during the inaugural STEAM Career Day at Muirlands Middle School March 11 when 35 professionals working in fields that use Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math, arrived to speak to students.

Representing the fields of medical research, genetics, animal training, video game design, investing, ceramics and more, the pros discussed the breadth of jobs available to students — along with the education needed to get them.

“There are so many careers in science, it’s not just ‘scientist’ or medical doctor. There is a whole gambit of them,” said Ryon Graf, a biomarker data analyst for Epic Sciences, who attended Muirlands Middle and La Jolla High. “There are many paths in science that use creativity; it’s a message that needs to be reiterated and taught. Science is not just a book of facts; it’s a process of doing things.”

Muirlands Principal Harlan Klein asked the speakers to shatter misconceptions and discuss how what they learned in school applies in the real world. “Maybe the students think a scientist is in a lab all day or an engineer in an office all day,” he said. “If you flip a switch for a couple of students who never considered those careers, it would be exceptional.”

During Career Day, the sixth- to eighth- grade students stayed in one classroom while the speakers rotated, allowing students to hear from three different guests. Questions posed included: whether the presenters spoke multiple languages and whether that’s been beneficial, how long they were in school, and how much money they make. Klein said, “STEAM education is very important in this day and age and to this age group (who could be) thinking about careers and all the things available to them. You can help get them prepare for the jobs of tomorrow that we don’t even know exist yet.”

One such job, suggested speaker Bradley Moore, is exploring the marine environment to develop medicine for humans. “Pharmaceuticals have traditionally been developed from nature,” the professor of Oceanography and of Pharmaceutical Sciences said. “For example, penicillin comes from a mold and Taxol for breast cancer comes from the Pacific Yew tree. The marine environment has been that last frontier for looking at what drug potential for humans might come from the ocean.”

Additionally, Graf said, skills such as statistical modeling will be beneficial in the future. “(Statistical modeling) is really hot right now and it’s going to continue to be, especially as we move into the era of big data,” he said.

Engineer Bill Hagey, who makes oceanographic instruments for the National Science Foundation said, in addition to scientific know-how, actually building things is crucial to scientific progress.

“There is no longer drafting class or metal shop or wood shop in school, it’s all about science,” he said. “Science is wonderful, but I make stuff. I hope students understand that they can get their hands dirty and make things with science.” He presented an instrument he made used to track marine animals that has a video recorder, oxygen sensor, depth sensor, GPS, temperature sensor, light sensor, remote release and radio.

“I hope to turn some kids on to careers like this and let them know the possibilities,” Hagey said. “You just need to have the ‘I can make that happen’ attitude and be able to work with people.”

On the flip side, designer and entrepreneur Mike Jorgensen said learning how to use computers to implement design ideas is a way to integrate art and technology.

“The artistic-leaning children need to know computer programs and the blueprint-making software CADD (Computer Aided Design and Drafting),” he said. “For example, if someone today thinks up a better mousetrap, and they know they have the tools to not just think about and put pencil to paper, but actually do the layout and put it into CADD, they can do and have it 3D printed in a day. Before you would have to go to a draftsperson or an engineer, today the artist is the engineer; the artist is now that draftsperson. The artist uses a lot of science these days.”

But fear not, young scientists, Susan Patch, another Muirlands alum and senior animal trainer at the San Diego Zoo, said exploring science is not always as difficult as it might seem. “It’s great to encourage kids to pursue an interest in science, especially young women who are not always encouraged to explore science. Give them options and let them know science can be fun,” she said. Animal training, she added, is reliant on animal sciences such as biology and zoology, and most trainers have at least a bachelor’s degree in one of those fields.

Addressing the role of women in STEAM careers, Patch added, “Young women need to get hands on and know they can do this, it’s not just ‘a man’s thing.’ They need to know they can use the things they’re good at — and interested in — and find a scientific field that could use those skills and interests.”

Eighth-grader Ella Brinton said she already had an interest in science before the STEAM Career Day, but it was piqued after listening to the presenters. “At first I thought it was going to be boring, but when I listened to them talk it was really interesting and the topics were cool,” she said. “We haven’t studied these types of sciences, so that did change my view a little bit because I never heard of some before.”

Similarly, eighth-grader Kylie Gantzel said she learned about careers she never knew existed like epidemiology, the branch of medicine that deals with the incidence, distribution and possible control of diseases and other factors relating to health.

Mac Bonebrake, also an eighth-grader, said he appreciated that the speakers shared what they wished they knew at the middle school level. “I asked the presenters what they took in high school to help them in their fields and what I might want to take in college,” he said. “I’m interested in biology and medicine, and I think that would be awesome to study in the future.”

Parent Lisa Bonebrake helped coordinate the event and find the speakers. She started by reaching out to coaches and volunteers involved with the school’s Science Olympiad program. She then contacted the Women in Science Association’s San Diego chapter.

All involved agreed that a STEAM Career Day would be held again next year.

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