Shaifer began his presentation by introducing seven special guest Gen Z middle school students who accompanied him, ready to demonstrate a STEM “Shark Tank” exercise Shaifer often conducts with students. As part of the demonstration, he called upon the expertise of three “multimillionaire” educator volunteers who evaluated the problem-solving proposals of the middle school students. The students who made up the two “STEM Shark Tank” teams were given 30 minutes with Shaifer prior to the lecture to create their proposals. After their presentations, the evaluators awarded them points on a scale of 1-10 in each of three categories, “Knowledge”, “Viability”, and “Presentation”.
The “White Tigers” team earned 26 of 30 points for their proposal to solve this problem: How could they guarantee that people who log on to the Internet won’t be hacked? Their ideas to solve this challenge included setting up an online security system that would generate a new unique password via a user’s eye-scan each day. Team “Big Bang Theory” proposed to solve the problems and potential problems created by space junk falling to earth, earning a total of 27 points from the judges. Among their ideas were to use radio waves to track space junk and to send spaceships into orbit equipped with high-powered magnets to collect and then safely dispose of the junk.
Lecture attendees enthusiastically shared their appreciation for the ideas with the students, especially when Shaifer pointed out that his “Shark Tank” student experiences are usually 10-week after-school or summer programs that give students a great deal more time for in-depth research and project-based learning opportunities that allow them to much more fully develop their ideas.
Following the demonstration, Shaifer pointed out that Gen Z students are the first generation of true “digital natives” – the first generation of students that are growing up in a world that has always had fast technology. In fact, he shared, the average teenager spends nine hours a day using all the different forms of technology at their disposal, including YouTube, Twitch (the most widely-used live stream platform), TikTok, and more.
Shaifer noted another key characteristic of Gen Z: 72% of its members report they want to start their own businesses and build their own unique “brands”. Personal branding and digital marketing online is top-of-mind for these students because personal brands, more and more, are becoming the new job security.
Given the characteristics and experiences of Gen Z students, Shaifer asked the question: “What role do educators play in this environment?” Some of the ways he suggests:
- Exposing students to experts in technical fields;
- Teaching students design thinking;
- Using current technology tools for problem-solving;
- Fostering 21st century skills by teaching students to use real-world tools like 3D printers and AutoCad design software;
- Facilitating project-based learning; and
- Creating a culturally responsive overall curriculum that includes learning critically important “soft skills” such as pitching ideas, speaking directly face-to-face to people, and shaking hands.
During the question and answer period, Shaifer was asked about how to encourage more girls to become involved in STEM fields. His answer? Allow students to solve problems they care about. For example, he worked with a group of female students who wanted to research how to mix chemical components that would create improved hair products. Other questions focused on ethical considerations in using technology, including data privacy and security; the relative weight and importance of GPA and test scores in determining admission to engineering schools; and how to teach students to be competent problems solvers through use of the Scientific Method, engineering concepts, and project-based learning.
More About Justin Shaifer
Drawn to science as a child, Shaifer initially taught himself and eventually earned scholarships from NASA and NOAA that covered 100% of his tuition and room and board at Hampton University. He graduated with a degree in marine and environmental science and earned the department’s highest GPA while serving as student body president. Currently, he travels all over the world with the goal of exciting students about science, technology, engineering, and math (better known as STEM).
Justin’s overall goal is “to be for STEM what ESPN is for sports”, and to inspire young people to “embrace their inner nerd despite their surroundings,” which springs from his own life experience growing up in a single-parent home on the South Side of Chicago. Read more about Justin’s work.