OUR CORNER: Being ‘geeky’ can be the way to go

While I consider myself more of a wordsmith, once in a blue moon I’ll do something to exercise the left side of my brain. Sometimes this will be sudoku, sometimes a math workbook and, at its most fun, a game-building guide that lets me make my own video games.

Though none of these have a direct benefit to my career, I like doing them because they are like mental spring cleaning. My thoughts adopt an organization, lucidity and ability to prioritize that did not exist before.

One of the most heinous pieces of misinformation in education, I think, is the idea that there are “right-brained” and “left-brained” people and that there is little point for a person of one persuasion to pursue interests in the other. I know the underlying concept originated in good brain science, but I don’t know how it became a popular rule of thumb: probably from a clever high school student that didn’t want to do his math homework anymore.

An even more heinous idea of separation is that there is school work and social life/sports/fun, and that the ideas coexist but rarely mingle. In this view, school work is a necessary evil in order to experience dances, friends and everything life is really about.

This is not only wrong, it’s dangerous and dangerously seductive. From middle school through college, kids come into their own socially and it is often easier to unite against the hardship of work, mingling in misery, than it is to accomplish and celebrate each other’s accomplishments.

I attended a high school in Orange County, California, a strange and affluent bubble closely associated with business conservatism, the Ayn Rand Institute and the idea that anything outside the gated community was “ghetto.” Academic achievements were recognized in truly grandiose awards ceremonies that I’ve seen nowhere else.

And yet there was a definite split among students. I have noticed that the children of successful families go one of two ways: they either become achievement-oriented and successful themselves, or they become lazy for want of nothing and spend time cutting class and partying in local parking lots. The achievement-oriented kids spoke condescendingly about the other side, but many of them seemed to be jealous of their “freedom” and didn’t look upon their high school accomplishments as being “real,” that there was a “real world” that they weren’t experiencing because they were too busy doing things.

How do we fix this? I think the obvious answer is to make being achievement-oriented – even geeky – cool. But this presents another problem. Cool is by and large a bottom-up phenomena, so to make geekiness cool, kids have to believe it is cool.

For schools, this means not only celebrating academic achievement in award ceremonies, it means celebrating such achievement every day.

For parents, it means monopolizing kids’ free time with smart activities.

Last summer, I was fortunate enough to be hired onto the instructional staff of the University of Washington Tacoma’s MSL program – that’s Math, Science and Leadership. The program is a four-week day camp (though program coordinator Adrienne Ione hates calling it camp) focusing on seventh- though12th-grade students who either belong to groups underrepresented in math and science fields, or will be the first member of their family attending college. During the school year, the program checks in once a month and a student who attends the program for all eligible grades has essentially completed an additional year of school.

The work is vital because these are groups underrepresented among college-bound teens. They are smart enough to be accepted into the program, but they may not come from a social group that emphasizes academic achievement. Hence, most of them are the swing group in the schism between achievement-oriented students and underachievers. One parent confided in me that many of the MSL students would be hanging out in the streets if they didn’t have the program.

There was a lot of resistance. Many of the kids were made to attend by their parents. They would rather do anything with their summer than go to school. From the instructor side, every other day seemed to bring some fresh hell to deal with.

It was the most difficult, frustrating and ultimately rewarding job I’ve ever had, because a funny thing happened. By the third week, the student who would rather be playing Halo was absorbed in programming a Lego robot or designing a building in Google SketchUp. The student who would rather be at basketball camp had designed an experiment measuring human exercise capacity. And though they’ll never say it to your face, they might secretly tell another instructor that they think you’re cool.

And if that means it’s become a little bit more cool for them to be geeky, that’s alright in my book.