Experts say that “STEM is the future.” Estimates show that around 80% of jobs in the future will require some skills in science, technology, engineering, and math. That might sound scary for kids who struggle with their times tables, but the truth is, STEM is already everywhere! An average ten-year-old’s knowledge of technology would be mind-boggling to most people a century ago—or even to their parents!
We dug into the latest issue of ASK Magazine, which is all about soccer, and the Science@Work section from MUSE Magazine to explore how talented professionals use science and math in their fields. Some of these jobs might seem to have no connection to STEM. Others might be jobs that you never knew existed. But all of them prove that the future of STEM jobs does not mean a future lacking in creativity, imagination, or fun!
Movies often set up the ‘jocks’ and the ‘brains’ as mortal enemies. In fact, successful athletes often use STEM skills every day on the field. They might not even realize that’s what they’re doing. Take soccer, for example. Players have to determine how hard to kick a ball to get it to reach the goal, or where on the ball to kick to get it to curve just the right amount. They need to know how friction caused by the grass field slows down the ball, or how gravity affects the ball when it’s kicked into the air. That’s all physics! But they don’t stand around in the field and calculate complicated equations. They learn how to do this over years of practice and experience. When you think about it, that’s like repeated trials in a physics experiment.
One example of this is called the “Magnus effect,” which allows players to perform a cool trick called a ‘banana kick.’ When a ball spins, one side moves in the opposite direction to how the air is flowing, while the other side moves with the air. The ball swerves toward the lower pressure side. That means that if a player wants to curve a ball to the left, they have to kick it a little to the right of the center. The harder you kick, the more it will bend. Understanding physics can only help to make you a better soccer player!
How many times have you heard the phrase “arts and sciences?” In truth, the two categories aren’t always that separate. Meet data artist Nathalie Mieback, who uses art to make people rethink the traditional ways scientists present information. Bar graphs and pie charts? Try beautiful woven sculptures. She got her start by accident while taking a basket-weaving class and an astronomy class on the same day. While listening to astronomy lectures accompanied by flat projected images against the wall, she wished she could find a way to make the stars and galaxies 3D to help her better understand them. Baskets, she realized, are actually simple 3D grids.
Now, she makes woven sculptures using weather data, charting information like moisture, pressure, and heat that is usually invisible and making it visible. The study of weather, climate, and other atmospheric conditions is called meteorology. Her work has been displayed in over 100 museum and gallery exhibits! She says, “Both scientists and artists share a healthy respect for intuition, contradiction, nuance, and reason and are able to think outside the box.”
Mieback isn’t the only artist who uses STEM skills. Geometry, anatomy, and even concepts like how to blend colors or determine how light will reflect or be absorbed by your artwork are all math and science skills that artists need!
Humans have been cooking since before recorded time, but skilled chefs are both artists and sciences. The ability to cook well—that is, combining ingredients and using heat, mixing, or blending to produce something new—boils down to chemistry!
Uma Parasar is a professional food chemist. Where we see fruits, vegetables, bread, and meat, she sees molecules! You can taste the flavors that her lab has created in all kinds of things—juices, yogurts, candy, potato chips, and chocolate, to name a few! Food chemists like Parasar use special equipment to trap odors to learn which chemical causes which smell. Then, they recreate that smell by mixing the molecules of those chemicals in the lab. She says of her work, “My goal is to continue to make products that are tasty, healthy, nutritious, and better for the planet!”
Knowing a lot about food can be useful in other branches of science, too! Kelila Jaffe is a professional chef, manager of the teaching kitchen at NYU, and an anthropologist who studies the archaeology of food. (‘Anthropology’ is the study of human societies, cultures, and biology.) Jaffe specifically studies how people have used animals as a source of food through history. There’s a lot that we can discover from the food that people ate in ancient times. We can learn when animals became domesticated, what kinds of food were common in which areas, which foods were involved in cultural traditions, and much more!
Video Game Developer
If you ask 100 kids about their dream job, we’d guess that a reasonable percentage would say they want to make a living from video games! It’s probably not a surprise, though, that designing video games requires some coding skills, which kids can start practicing as early as elementary school. Most video game designers will have to be knowledgeable about computer science and programming, animation, and math—but they also need to have great imaginations and storytelling skills.
We met a video game developer named Doris Rusch who’s also an associate professor for game design. Video game design degrees weren’t even around when she was in school. Instead, she studied linguistics and interactive systems. She says, “Games are richer when people do not approach them with a purely programmatic technical background, but when they feel they have something meaningful to say…. Everyone should make games, always.” Rusch takes playtime seriously. She believes that playing games can help us learn about ourselves and the world around us and likes to use games as learning tools. For example, she teamed up star basketball player Billy Garrett Jr., who has sickle cell anemia, to create a game called Blood Myth to raise awareness for the condition. Video games are a lot of fun, but that doesn’t mean they’re not important!
Theme Park Engineer
Engineering is all around us. We’ve heard of computer engineers, electric engineers, mechanical engineers, civil engineers, even nuclear engineers—but have you ever heard of a theme park engineer? Larry Giles is an engineer at Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Virginia, and he’s mastered the art and science of thrills! Among the coolest rides he’s hand a hand in were a steel and wood hybrid roller coaster called InvadR and a virtual reality fantasy ride called Battle for Eire.
All kinds of engineering backgrounds are put to use at theme parks. Structural engineers figure out how to safely design a ride. Computer programming engineers run simulated designs of rides to figure out the physics, and civil engineers add safety features. Mechanical engineers make sure that the thousands of moving parts of each ride functions smoothly. Design engineers create the immersive details on rides that camouflage the mechanical parts, while architectural engineers keep rides and buildings sturdy and well-equipped to handle tons of guests. Engineers also help design special effects like lighting and fog, while ride control engineers analyze the controls for each ride to make sure they’re as safe and foolproof as possible. And systems engineers oversee the whole enchilada!
Giles says, “I love standing at the exit, listening to guests walk off. After all the work we had to do, listening to what they had to say about it and watching how much fun they had on it—that’s the best part of the job.”
Professor Moran Cerf used to be a computer hacker, but now he hacks into people’s brains to see and try to understand their dreams. Okay, so maybe “Dream Hacker” isn’t the actual title you’d see on his business card, but he’s still another great example of a scientist working in a field that most people don’t even know exists.
Why is it important to study dreams? Cerf says, “The content of your dreams can affect your life. Let’s say you have nightmares. We can help you stop having nightmares. The way we do it is by identifying the time when the nightmares begin and then “feeding” into your mind things that will introduce a new narrative to it.” He also explains that patterns in our dreams can reflect how we feel about elements of our waking life, even if we don’t realize it. So, what kind of science exactly is involved in studying dreams? Cerf’s field is called ‘neuroscience,’ the branch of biology that deals with studying the nervous system and the brain. Want to learn how to record and change people’s dreams one day? It all starts with dissecting frogs and memorizing parts of a cell in high school biology class!