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The Future of STEM Education is Social Impact

By Dr. Kirstin Milks, AP Biology Teacher, Bloomington High School South (Indiana) — September 17, 2023 6 min read
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In today’s world where so many different elements of the news and of our culture are competing for students’ attention, one of the hardest things to do in grades 6 to 12 science education is to show young people the impact of what they are learning and why it matters. For a teacher, it’s a true gift to make space in your classroom – and in your curriculum – for letting students see how what they are learning can impact society in a truly positive way.

I was privileged to experience this, thanks to my AP Biology students. Last fall, they pressed me to help them enter the annual Samsung Solve for Tomorrow STEM competition for public middle and high school students – a program I’d not heard of before. After their drive, ingenuity, and hard work propelled their team to be a National Finalist and prize winner in the competition, people in our community and beyond now believe our youth have something to say about STEM education that’s worth hearing.

Transforming Communities & Minds: My Journey with STEM-Based Social Impact

Here in the Midwest, we’ve been grappling with heatwaves, droughts, flooding, air quality concerns, challenges posed by fluctuations in pollen levels, and increases in insect-carried diseases due to increased survival during winter freezes. In fact, my Solve for Tomorrow students mentioned that climate anxiety had significantly shaped their life experience as they progressed to middle school and started seeing the world around them in a more expansive way. Compared with 12 years ago when I started teaching, there is now deep consensus within our community that climate change is real and that we need to do something about it.

So that’s what my students asked to do, in my classroom during my last period class or when they were released from study hall: work on a “BIG THING,” in their words, that would help mitigate the climate crisis. In particular, they wanted to work in the intersection of art and STEM, engineering an art installation to make the world a better place by addressing “urban heat islands.” Urban heat islands are areas within cities and urbanized areas that have significantly higher temperatures due to factors like buildings and pavement retaining heat.

What my students focused on – and what won them the Solve for Tomorrow “Sustainability Innovation Award” – was to utilize the kind of highly reflective paint that has gained attention in Indiana for its ability to lower building temperatures by reflecting away sunlight and thereby reduce urban heat island effects. They enlisted fellow students whose primary interests were rooted in the arts to design and paint a mural highlighting climate change – and demonstrating society’s ability to make a difference. As a joint effort of science geeks and creative types, the idea was to send a message to the larger community by painting their reflective mural at Bloomington’s WonderLab Science Museum.

Here in Bloomington, it didn’t take long for them to make a big impact. A business incubator in town wants to use their paint on their new building. There’s been discussion at the municipal level about surveying and increasing the number of reflective white roofs in town, and the city has initiated a mural project as a public art effort, adorning shared downtown spaces with vibrant artworks. There’s also been a newly widespread conversation at the community level about combating heat island effects with reflective paints and other mitigation strategies.

Importantly, my students’ project will live on well past the end of the competition. The Science Museum’s WonderLab will paint another wall of their building with various paints to demonstrate their reflective values. And 2 or 3 of my students who are going to college locally will construct a family learning experience centered on their STEM solution, giving lessons at the museum aimed at preschoolers and elementary school children.

This is just the type of thing that families want to see their teenagers doing. They want their kids to come home and say, “I’m making a difference.” Any time a teacher can be part of that, we are building students who feel more confident that they can make change on a personal level. And what I love about Solve for Tomorrow is that it asks students to do something locally – something touching them and those they know – but that also echoes on a national level and scale.

While I thought my involvement with the mural project in last season’s competition would be a one-off event, as this school year gets started, students I don’t even know are coming up to me and saying, “we want to do a project.” It’s looking like our school will have two to four teams applying for Solve for Tomorrow – they are already working with each other after school in the cafeteria. As a teacher, that’s really exciting.

Empowering Students: How STEM-Based Social Impact Projects Fuel Growth & Learning

At the end of the day, educators need to be able to find a way for students to feel they are having a positive impact. (Such an impact is equally important, in my experience, for teachers!) That’s where Solve for Tomorrow can be a big assist – as a program and process to help students organize their thinking and even strengthen their communications skills as they collaborate together to tackle big issues.

Another aspect of social impact is that learning to do work that makes the world a better place for other people – and learning how to do that WITH other people – builds a sense of belonging. And belonging is an antidote for loneliness, fear, and anxiety, as well as the lingering legacies of the pandemic.

In helping students build a radically inclusive team that is working together on a project, you help students not just make the world a better place for other people, but also help them build a sense that they can be changemakers. What working on Solve for Tomorrow let my students do is celebrate the different strengths that each team member brought to the project, as well as how the work they put in will help others in the future.

Another big advantage of the Solve for Tomorrow program is that it teaches students a range of “soft skills” in addition to STEM concepts. When kids in the final rounds are asked to pitch their ideas in a video and to a panel of judges, a difficult task even for adults, that’s helping them learn to collaborate, adapt, develop emotional intelligence, practice making a claim and backing it up, and communicate effectively.

Those so-called soft skills are really professional skills – the abilities that future employers want, and that our next-gen entrepreneurs and advocates need. Most high school students don’t get to be project managers anywhere else in their lives – families, coaches, and bosses often do the managing for them. With Solve for Tomorrow, teachers have an opportunity to support students as they acquire skills that are in demand and prepare them for their futures.

Teaching for Tomorrow: How to Incorporate STEM-Based Social Impact in Your Classroom

If you’re a middle or high school educator in a public school, I encourage you to consider applying for the 2023-2024 Solve for Tomorrow competition, which just launched, and to incorporate STEM-based social impact projects into your curriculum. Here’s some advice:

  1. Start small. Build targeted, short-term curricula around problem-based learning (PBL) concepts. Start with a week or even three days across your course.
  2. Problem-based work requires that teachers show a little more openness in the “teaching” process. Realize that you don’t need to know everything to maintain your authority – the project will help you not only teach, but also learn and grow.
  3. Concentrate on projects that are hyperlocal so that your students will be able to experience community impact directly and meaningfully.

This Solve for Tomorrow experience – watching my students do extraordinary things – has been a real gift to me as a teacher! I’m excited that Solve for Tomorrow will continue to support other educators in stepping up to start their classes on the path to doing extraordinary things in their own communities.

To learn more about the Samsung Solve for Tomorrow STEM competition, which is accepting entries now through October 27, 2023, please visit