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We live in a world that needs science now more than ever, and we must strive to build educational environments that provide science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM) opportunities to evermore students. A rigorous STEAM education changes lives, communities, our world.

STEAM changes minds.

This week, four North Carolina high school students are representing their schools and our state in China, presenting their scientific research at the 37th Beijing Youth Science Creation Competition. We tagged along thanks to the N.C. Science, Mathematics, and Technology Education Center.

Arjun, Dory, Ana Sofia, and Raymond are already research scientists. They are already makers, collaborators, and innovators. They are the creators of knowledge on which our collective future will be built.

As Arjun reminded us, all children have this aptitude.

For these students, the journey to being scientists started by making potions in their backyard, learning the night sky, wondering why objects fall, thinking about how to get up into space.

They didn’t wait to become scientists. They didn’t wait for college. They didn’t wait to get a Ph.D. But access to a rigorous STEAM education and mentors made a difference for each of them.

Our work to increase access to supercharged, STEAM learning environments for all of our students starts now.

We cannot wait for the future to come to us, North Carolina.

We must empower our children to build a better, brighter future for our state.

In Beijing, there were delegations of young scientists from China and the U.S., Czechoslovakia and Denmark, Korea and Malaysia, Russia and Ukraine, South Africa and Australia.

It was an opportunity to visit and learn, to exchange ideas and research, to collaborate and innovate. Together.

Nancy Sung, head of the National Science Foundation at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing says, “Science is increasingly global. Scientists will have to be able to operate across cultures.”

The Great Wall of China and the country’s building of Science City in 2030 remind us that China is good at setting audacious goals for itself.

Our state needs to rethink our priorities and set a few audacious economic, educational, and scientific goals of our own, so that we are prepared to compete and collaborate with the rest of the world in the coming decades.

Let’s get started.

Let’s move beyond retention and graduation rates and make sure we are building innovative educational environments and systems. Moving away from sit and get classrooms and implementing project-based learning is a first step.

Relationships matter. Our students need access to the best mentors, the best labs. We have 58 community colleges across North Carolina that are ready to partner to provide these opportunities to students in rural areas from Murphy to Manteo. 

The girl effect was in full effect in Beijing with girls leading the way to find new sources of power for motor vehicles, assess and improve the health of our forests, fight cancer, and think about ways to make sure we all have enough clean water to drink now and in the future. Providing all of our girls with rigorous STEAM opportunities will lift families and communities out of poverty.

Our mindset has to change. Failure is a good and necessary part of the scientific process, allowing us to iterate our thinking. All of our students need to be good thinkers — and communicators.

We can do these things. All of them are necessary. None of them are audacious.

Our politicized, polarized world inhibits audacious thinking, visioning, and planning for our future. So let’s create classrooms where our students will do it for us.

“If more kids have these opportunities, more kids will do amazing things,” Ana Sofia concludes, already leading the way.

Matthew Meyer

Dr. Matthew Meyer is the associate vice president of educational innovations for the N.C. Community College System.

Dr. Michael Mullen

Dr. Michael Mullen is the vice chancellor and dean for academic and student affairs at N.C. State University.

Mebane Rash

Mebane Rash is the CEO and editor-in-chief of EducationNC and the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research.