By the time she entered middle school, Olympic swimmer Katie Ledecky came to fully understand and appreciate how science and math helped her measure her progress and eventually become one of the best in her sport.
Years later, Ledecky conveys messages about the importance of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) through STEM Forward, an education program she participates in as a Team Panasonic athlete.
This year, more than 400,000 young people in schools across the country have utilized resources from Ledecky’s STEM Virtual Field Trip.
Ledecky recently took her advocacy to the next level when she spoke to students at Eliot-Hine Middle School in Northeast and conducted science experiments aligned with her experiences as an Olympic swimmer.
For Ledecky, a District native, seven-time Olympic gold medal winner, and Stanford University alumna, the Monday morning presentation provided ample opportunity to stress to young people the importance of STEM in their daily lives.
“We want our country to be successful and we want our young people to be the leaders of tomorrow. We need to continue to have great problem solvers,” Ledecky said.
“Looking at STEM careers encourages young people to focus on STEM,” she added.
“It’s also about trying to get more young girls and women into STEM fields and fill that gap. If I can encourage one young girl to pursue something in STEM, it’s awesome and has a ripple effect.”
For more than an hour, students watched Ledecky and Patti Duncan of Panasonic conduct various science experiments. One experiment about water absorbity highlighted why Ledecky and other competitive swimmers wear water-resistant swimsuits and shave the exposed parts of their body before entering the pool.
Other experiments involving water, balloons and fire highlighted the polarity of water and its ability to absorb energy. Students also used scientific reasoning to determine why Ledecky stays near the surface of the water while swimming.
Azola Burton, a sixth grader at Eliot-Hine, counted among the first students to participate in the science demonstration. He said that experience sparked a desire for similar activities in the classroom.
“I like how I went to the stage and they had everything set up and were very specific about what to do,” Azola said. “This type of science class was exciting. I like in-person experiences [where I get to] touch things. It helps me learn.”
A strong grasp of STEM concepts at the K-12 level increases a young person’s likelihood of successfully pursuing STEM-related degrees in college and entering what have become the more in-demand, economically vibrant fields.
However, American math and science standardized test scores haven’t increased in more than a decade, widening a job skills gap and placing the United States in the middle among its global competitors. Since the pandemic, there have been more openings for epidemiologists, medical sciences and biochemists, among other STEM professionals.
Black people account for less than 10% of the STEM workforce. A report compiled by the National Science Board earlier this year attributed this trend to persistent racial and socioeconomic disparities in STEM education that the pandemic exacerbated.
That’s why Alexis Fleming, a seventh grade life science teacher at Eliot-Hine said activities like what took place at Eliot-Hine can help young people improve their critical thinking and make observations about the world they navigate.
Fleming noted that the academy has pivoted toward an approach where teachers conduct experiments either before or while teaching the lesson. She described that as an acknowledgement of young people’s desire to ask questions.
“Hands-on experiments help to increase inquiry and curiosity. It’s not the final step,” Fleming said.
“The world is always changing and there is new technology. We need people who are confident and have some basic scientific knowledge to enter these conversations. We need people who are curious enough to dive deeper and learn more for the sake of solving problems.”