This week our team member Emma had the pleasure of meeting virtually with Robert, a former staff member at STEM Minds who is completing his undergraduate degree in chemistry, to discuss the ways that STEM learning has impacted his work in his field. Read the interview below to check out what he had to say!
So, how did you get started at STEM Minds?
I started in Grade 10 as a volunteer at summer camp. I got into the digital media side of things right away and really developed a passion for it and then that translated into a job there where I got to teach and explore lots of different topics. I loved that I not only got to explore so much of the tech side of things, but I also got to explore creativity, especially designing music. It has been so fulfilling to create music and hear it back and realize that your own music isn’t garbage, in fact it is pretty good! So I am so excited that we have launched the Computer Music course recently. If our Computer Music students get just a fraction of the experience and satisfaction I got from exploring this, they are going to be pretty excited!
What are you currently studying in University? What made you want to study that?
I am currently working towards an Honours Degree in Chemistry. After working at STEM Minds and being exposed to so many people who work there who want to be trailblazers in the STEM Movement, I was really inspired to take the direction I have gone in in my schooling. When I chose to go into Chemistry I knew I didn’t want to distance myself from the actual work of the lab. Of course I wanted to learn all forms of sciences but what I really wanted was for my work to be practical in nature, which is what led me to working on the research team that I am currently a part of. STEM Minds is so involved in the practical education side of things and this was part of what made me realize that I really wanted to be in the place where science happens, not just work theoretically, so I am really enjoying my research work!
We work with a lot of students who aspire to pursue higher education in STEM fields, what are some skills that have been beneficial to you during your studies?
In my field I have found being able to work sort of mechanically has been an asset. You have sometimes over 10 hours in the lab per week, so it is really important that you are able to work with your hands while doing that. I had never been very mechanically oriented before I started my degree so this has actually been a big learning curve for me as I learn how to conduct myself in the lab setting!
And of course, beyond having good study habits, I have found it so important to be able to reach beyond the courses I am taking, such as finding my own resources about specific Chemistry topics that interest me (the history of Chemistry, in my case). There is still so much in Chemistry that we actually do not understand, so there are a lot of connections between old theories and the work we do today! Being able to move beyond the content of a University course and work to make connections about what you are passionate about and make connections to the real world has been really important.
What I appreciate from working at STEM Minds is that so much of what we do is modeled around current issues. This gets students thinking critically and being creative but also allows them to identify with something they feel is important to them and really makes learning meaningful.
Have there been any surprising ways your STEM skills have helped you in your degree?
Yes, my STEM experience has been extremely helpful! There are lots of things, but I’ll just give a few examples for now.
You really need to be willing to branch out into tech if you want to be at the forefront of the field I am in, so this has been really helpful to me. In my case, my experience with Arduino has been really useful in the research team I am working with over the summer. I didn’t have any formal training before I joined this research project, but having worked with Arduino in the past helped me be able to pick up what I am doing now a lot more easily than if I didn’t have that experience.
My STEM experience also helped me be willing to learn things that some other people were more weary of. For example, we had access to a CNC machine, but none of the grad students had really been making use of it because they didn’t know how. Even though I didn’t know how to use it yet, I had seen my colleagues at STEM Minds use it and it seemed like something I could tackle. So since I was just willing to give it a try I was able to learn how to use it no problem! These past experiences made me willing to learn all new things and not worry so much about trying something out.
Another example is using MATLAB, which is a professional software that is used for data management. If I didn’t have any experience coding, it may have been really overwhelming and felt complicated. However, it is actually really similar to Python so I was able to learn no problem. And this may be an example some people may not think of right away, because you usually associate coding with Computer Science and not with Chemistry. But in reality, a lot of softwares that are used in Chemistry really take it for granted that you can code so I am really glad I have that experience.
What do you want to tell students wanting to pursue higher education in STEM?
Always always always be open to personalizing your experience! Especially in something like Chemistry where there can be a very rigid and dry curriculum. That is how I became so attached to the history of Chemistry and also how I realized that I may prefer to be an electrochemist than anything else. If I had just followed the curriculum as it was laid out I may have never found the thing I was most passionate about!
A lot of people in my program can just go through each course and then be done with it. But it seems like those people don’t always enjoy themselves quite as much as they would if they would dive into what elements of a course are most interesting and meaningful to them. It is a lot less inspiring to be in a course if you are just passively involved, so I always try to make connections to the course work that are meaningful to me.
When you put your own spin on what you are doing in school, you will learn more about what you like. Just learning what the school is giving you is not as important as making that learning your own. It is important to find what is important to you in each and every course, and like I said earlier, making those real world connections is so important as well! If you can personalize your learning, you are going to gain so much more, and you definitely don’t have to wait until you are in University to do that!
Thanks so much to Robert for meeting with me for this interview! Robert certainly is an interesting case study for how beneficial STEM learning can be in a wide variety of fields.