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Working with Mimi: Storytelling for STEM

In my line of work, I have the privilege of meeting teenagers who have the remarkable ability to solve the kind of math that most find daunting. Their gift is not just awe-inspiring, it's a testament to their talent, dedication, and intellect. However, I often find myself asking them a crucial question—why does this math matter to them? Why should the world care about the theorem or proof they’re passionate about?

Cricket. Cricket. 

Sometimes, students fall into a STEM field because they have a natural gift that should be nurtured. By the time college applications roll around, the question of why looms large. It’s not enough to be good—or even great—at something; there also has to be a purpose behind it. At some point in your application process, you will have to talk about the fields that excite you, and you need to be able to say more than “Well, I’m good at it.”

And so the stress begins. STEM communication is notoriously difficult, especially when related to abstract subjects like pure math or theoretical physics. I encounter it every year, and I've chosen to focus on pure math in this post because it is one of the most challenging subjects to articulate due to how intangible it can feel. I spend a lot of time reminding these students that it's highly unlikely that the person reading their application has a Ph.D. from MIT or they may have dreaded their high school math class. I’ll dedicate free time to reading about proofs if it can help me understand a student better, but an admissions officer does not have the time or the mental bandwidth to do that for an applicant. I don’t comprehend about 99% of what I read, but even the smallest small piece of new knowledge can let me help a STEM student inch closer to being a clearer communicator. 

There’s also a misconception that STEM individuals are weaker writers. Certainly, that’s a fallacy, considering how many writers on The Simpsons have math backgrounds and that some of the greatest philosophical thinkers were mathematicians (sup, René Descartes). However, this fallacy can become a self-fulfilling prophecy for STEM students when they start to believe they are weak communicators. In sessions with STEM students, there are two big hurdles to conquer—overcoming this false perception of self and tackling what it means to express scientific and mathematical thought to a layperson. By recognizing and challenging this misconception, students can unleash their potential as a communicator and advocate for themselves. 

I’ve often found that students who excel in these fields have a course schedule that supports their intellectual interests, as they should! They may not have the time to sign up for a creative writing elective or read for pleasure. Through no fault of their own, they stop discovering narrative approaches and techniques that introduce them to new ways of articulating lived experiences. As a result, many of my STEM students have never been in a position where they need to exercise narrative skills. We have to work together to discover their voice and build confidence in it.

Truthfully, the individuals reading your STEM essays may never share your excitement for the Birch and Swinnerton-Dyer conjecture. But that’s not what matters; they should be excited that you’re excited. Painting a picture of your aspirations in your field and connecting abstract concepts to everyday life help make an experience tangible for a reader. In the process of writing about STEM, students should not only communicate their passion but also discover more about themselves. How has writing proofs informed how you tackle problems you encounter in the real world? Why are you drawn to the Birch and Swinnerton-Dyer conjecture in the first place? This self-discovery journey through writing about STEM can be a powerful tool for personal growth and self-confidence.

I’ve found many similarities between STEM students and those focusing on art or language studies. They have a natural gift that they've cultivated throughout their academic years, but suddenly, they must articulate why it matters in relation to who they are and what they want to do with it. A writing coach can be supportive in these areas where interest developed out of a natural talent during adolescence, which can feel different from an intellectual curiosity that was sparked during middle or high school.

Together, we can investigate pieces of writing that successfully simplify complex topics and make them accessible, learning from them along the way. We can examine how a STEM interest permeates other parts of a student's life. We can ask what responsibilities a student feels come with their strengths in these fields. We can imagine where they might land ten years from now and use that imagination to inform how we talk about the present.

A student can practice explaining concepts and their work, having a space where they can fail without judgment until they succeed. There’s knowledge to be discovered in failing over and over again. Failing doesn’t mean we stop trying. It means we try again. We only need to look at the field of pure mathematics to recognize the power of this mindset. After all, mathematicians are still trying to solve the Birch and Swinnerton-Dyer Conjecture.


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