Digital Pop Culture for STEM
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Episode Show Notes
How do you use the power of digital pop culture today to engage kids in engineering? Guest engineer Nehemiah Mabry, Ph.D., talks about this and more. Nehemiah is a practicing engineer in North Carolina and founder of his business STEMedia. STEMedia creates digital content to promote science, technology, engineering, and math.
Our closing music is called “Wishing” by Soirée, used with permission, and you can find more of Soirée’s music on SoundCloud, user soireebeats.
Listen to the Engineering Word Of The Day podcast. Also check out the book and ebook Engineer’s Guide to Improv and Art Games by Pius Wong, on Amazon, Kindle, Apple iBooks, Barnes & Noble Nook, and other retailers.
Subscribe and leave episode reviews wherever you get your podcasts. Support Pios Labs with regular donations on Patreon or by buying a copy of the reference book Engineer's Guide to Improv and Art Games by Pius Wong. You'll also be supporting educational tools and projects like Chordinates! or The Calculator Gator. Thanks to our donors and listeners for making the show possible. The K12 Engineering Education Podcast is a production of Pios Labs.
Pius Wong 0:01
It's September 18th, 2017, and this is the K12 Engineering Education Podcast. Internet memes, viral videos, social media -- kids today are consuming digital pop culture like this all the time. How can we use it to engage kids in engineering? My guest today has some ideas. I'm Pius Wong. And today I speak with Nehemiah Mabry, engineer and founder of STEMedia. STEMedia is his company focused on creating digital content to promote science, technology, engineering, and math.
Well, I just wanted to say welcome to the K12 Engineering Education Podcast officially.
Dr. Nehemiah Mabry 0:50
Pius Wong 0:51
For our listeners, they may have heard me say your name as Nehemiah Mabry, but I should be probably calling you Dr. Mabry. Is that correct?
Dr. Nehemiah Mabry 0:57
Oh man, look. You know, I don't make any fuss about that. It's only certain environments --
Well, you know, I pull it out when it can be helpful to me. Other than that, you know, I don't need to use the title that often. Sure, man, whatever fits you. Nehemiah, Ne, that's what my friends call me.
Pius Wong 1:03
Hey, it's a big deal.
Cool. So can you tell anyone listening what your background is? Where did you get your PhD, and what do you do?
Dr. Nehemiah Mabry 1:25
Yes. So I formally trained as a civil structural engineer, to be exact. I started school studying Applied Math and Engineering, a dual-degree program in Alabama. Got a Master's down there at the University of Alabama, Huntsville. Then I moved up to Raleigh, North Carolina, where I am now. I attended North Carolina State University. And I got my PhD in structural engineering and mechanics. So that was my academic journey. I didn't take any breaks. Kind of kept going straight through. But now that I'm done, I'm working in the field of bridge design, designing, inspecting and analyzing bridges up here in the Raleigh, Durham, area.
Pius Wong 2:07
That sounds like heavy engineering. Is there a lot of math and and analysis and coding involved in that?
Dr. Nehemiah Mabry 2:14
Not so much coding. It could be heavy math, but not on a regular basis. We have design goals, as many listeners may know, that kind of guide our design practices. And inspecting is just that: inspecting, find out what's wrong. Where it gets pretty heavy, though, is when we're analyze and we're actually trying to determine, you know, how strong -- or rate the strength of a bridge. That's where it gets a little tough. But, you know, that's not every day.
Pius Wong 2:40
Yeah, there are a lot of teachers listening, and a lot of them might just have a little bit of an impression of what engineers do day-to-day. So that's kind of cool that you explain that. Something that they might not know is that you also are involved in the education world, not just engineering.
Dr. Nehemiah Mabry 2:58
Pius Wong 2:59
You've got a company called STEMedia.org.
Dr. Nehemiah Mabry 3:02
Yes, so STEMedia is actually, to be honest with you -- it started as a personal extracurricular activity during my PhD program. As a grad student, I really wanted the outlet to creatively share my passion for engineering and science. And I wanted to do it in a way that would inspire other people. So I did it initially, this kind of extracurricular activity, and then from there, it has sort of evolved into a digital media company, which provides creative and inspirational content for the STEM community. So videos, live workshops, and other types of content is what STEMedia is all about, and I love it.
Pius Wong 3:43
What's the mission?
Dr. Nehemiah Mabry 3:44
So the mission of STEMedia -- I say that we want to become the ESPN of STEM. You know, kind of how ESPN kind of prizes themselves as the worldwide leader in sports, or the go-to source for sports. And that's kind of what we want to do when it comes to particularly creative and inspirational content. We have a lot of players, you know, yourself and so many others that are doing tremendous things in STEM. But we kind of want to be able to show a picture of STEM that is essentially creative genius meeting technical intelligence. So one that is inspirational, one that is empowering, one that is creative, one that basically makes it as prestigious as many other popular careers in our society, such as entertainment and sports, and things of that nature. So that's really the overall goal of STEMedia, you know, to really change the perception of people like myself and those who have an outlook.
Pius Wong 4:42
Yeah, I think you might agree sometimes engineers get a bad rap, I guess. They're stereotyped as a certain type of person.
Dr. Nehemiah Mabry 4:52
Pius Wong 4:53
So what do you exactly do to combat those perceptions of engineers and engineering?
Dr. Nehemiah Mabry 4:58
You know, so It's funny because I'm really finding ways to take what was in my head out and share it with other people. That's kind of what the goal was, because going through engineering school myself, I didn't really see too many people that look like me, whether it be the fact that I'm an African American male, or it could also be someone that is was very interested in a number of things such as, you know: I was a musician. I play the bass guitar. I was an improv director of an improv drama troupe. I sang in a couple of singing groups, in choirs. I do a lot of public speaking. And not to say that this these people didn't exist, it just wasn't represented. So as I am going about my studies, sometimes I would just find these connections between my creative passions and the things that I was studying. And so, whether it be a poem, whether it be a rap, or whether it be a skit or something that's in my head. And so, to do that, now, STEMedia just seeks to create content that just expresses it in humorous ways, whether it be connected with pop culture, tying your favorite child character cartoon to a particular concept in engineering. Something that just recently got a lot of attention was a poem -- STEM Poetry is how I like to call it -- where I explained my research in the form of spoken word poetry for a contest that took place.
Pius Wong 6:30
Well, that's really cool. I haven't heard of that. Where's that going on? Is that just a movement or a program?
Dr. Nehemiah Mabry 6:37
Technometric STEM poetry is what we call the program that STEMedia developed and actually is something that has taken place for three years running now, here at North Carolina State University where we get a lot of engineering students and basically just have a spoken word poetry slam. And the only criteria is that you have to incorporate technical concepts into your lyrics. So it's been growing. Many students have been coming out, essentially doubled every year. And that was just something that came from my idea from a video that I did the day before. And so I took that concept, kind of sharing two different things -- that's that's the event side of it. But in reference to the video that I was just mentioning, it was a contest by the National Academy of Engineering here last year. And yeah, I entered it. And I said, you know, I'll just use something that I've been doing and join what has been resonating here locally, to enter that contest. And so, fortunately, I was successful and won the national grand prize.
Pius Wong 7:39
Congratulations. Obviously, you've had some success in popularizing engineering and promoting it and everything. What kind of digital media really resonates with people?
Dr. Nehemiah Mabry 7:53
Obviously, there's this the ubiquitousness of social media today. Attention is there, particularly for the millennial generation, Generation Z. I mean, that's where attention is. And so while I wouldn't say that traditional media, magazines, TV, and all that, radio, is dead, I would say that, it's a necessity to have content on social media platforms. So that as a channel, as a distribution channel, just automatically is something you have to incorporate, I believe. But other than that, it's really a philosophical shift that I have in my head. And that is, I'm not trying to make engineering cool. I'm simply revealing the coolness in engineering that I've already seen, right? I think when you say, "Let's make it cool," you almost imply that it isn't cool, and we're trying to transform it into something that it's not. But if you see it as cool already, it's like, hey, I'm just going to literally reveal what I already see, so you can see what I see. Then it's kind of a different process. It's simply pulling back the veil. And so the fact that I can watch a sitcom or watch a cartoon and just see engineering, or identify a character in a movie that reminds me of myself when I was trying to figure something out allows me to then sort of reverse engineer what's already interesting to those in pop culture. If people are loving the certain meme, if a meme is going viral, if TV show is hot, you know, you can just look at that and say, hey, these are things -- once they pop up on someone's feed, these are the things that are going to grab your attention. Why? Because these are hot topics. So let me find the element in that, that alludes to engineering or that suggests some sort of idea. And so that's really been the route that I've been taking, sort of kind of working backwards from what is already holding the attention of those you're trying to reach.
Pius Wong 9:46
I see. So you're kind of riding those trends of what's popular on social media, and especially with young people, it sounds like. From what I understand you're definitely trying to aim for younger people.
Dr. Nehemiah Mabry 9:56
Yeah, well, you know, the thing is, the pipeline is always essential. So you want to make sure that the younger demographic is constantly being considered in everything you're doing. Majority of my talks and stuff take place K through 12 arena. But I've also been doing a lot with higher ed. I look at my life, and I say, okay, when was the pinnacle of cool? I am probably on the other side of cool, naturally speaking, when it comes to the fact that, you know, I'm a father, I'm married, I have a kid. It's cool, and don't get me wrong, but I mean, where do you -- you know, when you're younger, you're looking up. Like, oh, the high schoolers in high school are maybe looking up to the college students. So I kind of see college age students as people who can kind of set the benchmark for what is happening, what is really taking place. And so if you can create an excitement in that group, I think you're going to have your high schools look up to them. And then you're going to have your middle schoolers look up to your high schoolers, and then you'll have your elementary students look up to middle schoolers. So yeah, kind of the whole K through 12 gambit, I would say. But I have also been able to really do some things with higher ed that I feel has been effective.
Pius Wong 10:46
What have been some of your biggest successes with higher ed? Like that STEM poetry thing for one, I guess.
Dr. Nehemiah Mabry 11:15
Definitely. That has been kind of the flagship thing. Like I said, it has been growing every year, looking to take it to other campuses, and even getting a little bit of sponsorship interest, as well. So that has definitely been one of the things that has been successful on a higher ed level. But also, I do a lot of workshops. It can kind of be adjusted for your age group, but I go into schools and talk about STEM plus creativity, showing how there are inventions and there has been innovation has taken place throughout the course of history that has been nothing short of works of art. Being able to engage students through exercises that allow them to think outside the box to achieve certain technical means, and that has been one of the things that has been really resonating. Also just, you know, I think being able to present yourself as one of them. And what I mean by that is simply sharing your story. Right? You're not going to say facts and figures. You know, this is why STEM is important. This is how much more money you're going to make. Yes, those things are important. I think they are persuasive. But really, outside of that, man, just resonating on a personal level, has been kind of more of a secret sauce, I think. Whenever I have embedded it in whatever project, I've seen, like I said, a certain response that has been more effective than trying to come as the, you know, elder statesman, this is trying to tell you what to do.
Pius Wong 12:56
So then Nehemiah, then can you tell a little bit of your story? Like why were you interested in engineering in the first place? Structural engineering or any of that?
Dr. Nehemiah Mabry 13:04
Yes, absolutely. I mean, when I was growing up, I was a kid, and I had a little bit of tinkerism in me, as people say. But more than that, man, I used to collect tons of, like, trinkets and broken hangers and old packaging from toys and just random things around the house and around the neighborhood that I would just see lying around. And someone showed that -- my mom was like, Why are you bringing this stuff in my house? You know, this is dirty, what are you doing? And I had it all collected in what I called my junk drawer. And I was convinced as a kid, pretty much, you know, my entire elementary school years that I was going to use these things to create something. I was going to make the next big thing with all these random parts. And so I tried tons of things, man. I tried to create my own video game or try to create motorized vehicles. I tried to do all types of things, and those were kind of my early experiences with being an engineer, being an inventor, being someone that had an affinity for this area. So I did that, man. And I didn't even know that engineering was a possible career, until later on in my youth, probably around 11th grade in high school. My dad who was always quick to give me ideas of things I should try out mentioned it to me. And so I said, huh, engineering? He's like, yeah, you know, this combines math, and then it has design involved, which was also something I was really interested in. It's related to my drawing and things like that. So I went into my 11th grade year thinking, Okay, I'm going to try this engineering thing. And it just so happened that there was a particular NASA internship opportunity in my city that was only for 11th graders.
Pius Wong 14:49
And that was in Alabama?
Dr. Nehemiah Mabry 14:51
That was in Huntsville, Alabama, where I was living at a time. Yeah, Marshall Space Flight Center was the location, and I applied for it, man, and I got it. I just remember that summer been exposed to all different types of engineering. And that's when I was hooked. I knew -- I was like, Hey, this is this is the career path for me. This is where I need to be. And I just rode the wave ever since.
Pius Wong 15:10
Wow. So that's really awesome. I'm sure you worked real hard, but in a way it sounds from an outside perspective, you were kind of lucky, because you found out about it almost when you were gonna graduate from high school. Some kids might find out real late, and maybe they might not have some of those opportunities. Do you think that if you knew about the field earlier, you would have -- I don't know -- done the same thing? If you got exposed to some of the media that you're making now?
Dr. Nehemiah Mabry 15:38
Yes, I think so. I think I for one would have known what engineering was a little bit earlier. The fact that I latched onto the opportunity -- and I really latched on, Pius. I'm telling you, after I did that summer, the next summer, there was no program, but I just called everybody that I remember from the summer before and said, Can I come back and volunteer? So I literally volunteered another summer, because I just -- again, I really enjoyed it. And so what I think would have happened if I would had gotten exposed earlier, as a lot of people have an opportunity to do through my programs or other things, is, just really immersed myself sooner, you know? Really get exposed and then get involved and get engaged to, where by the time I got to college, I would have been -- I probably would have known how to make a video game or motorized vehicle. I wouldn't have had to guess, because I was exposed to how it's done sooner.
Pius Wong 16:34
Right. You wouldn't be making it out of the coat hangers and the other things you've been finding.
Dr. Nehemiah Mabry 16:37
Yeah, exactly. I probably would have had my Audrunio going by then.
Pius Wong 16:37
Yeah. So I wanted to ask, going back to the teacher's perspective, I could already picture some people's opinions or some people's questions. One might be: Should the classroom or should schools be the right setting to bring in social media? Like, basically some teachers complain that social media is too ubiquitous, like you're saying, that kids should not be looking at their phone all the time. What do you say to people like that where who are maybe skeptical of using social media or digital media to try to promote STEM?
Dr. Nehemiah Mabry 17:17
Well, what I think is a fair concern is the safety of young young children. You don't want to, with good intention, try to say, Here, have at it. Go on Instagram, go on Facebook, go on YouTube or whatever, and then have them stray into sort of the random corners of the internet that will do more harm than good. So I do think that caution and wisdom and discretion should be considered, particularly in elementary schools and middle schools. But on the other hand, I think, if you were to say that it's too ubiquitous, too many places, let's stay away from it -- I think that you'd sort of doing a disservice, or ignoring the fact that it's not going anywhere. That's very similar to, I would say, arguing against PBS and all the other educational channels that took place on TV. We knew TV existed, and there were poor programming, there was poor content that kids should stay away from. But that doesn't mean that we should avoid it, inputting the content that kids need to consume. Right? So the fact of the matter is, here you have, I don't know, millions of views taking place of the very kids you're teaching. And the question is, do we want to make something positive for them to be able to be exposed to? Or do we want to stay out of the game and literally say that 100% of those millions of views are just going to go to, you know, purposeless content?
Pius Wong 18:59
Cat videos or something.
Dr. Nehemiah Mabry 19:00
Yeah, exactly. So here it is. They're going to be watching something. So we want to make sure that we get in the game so that, in the same way that PBS gave parents a channel to place their children in front of, we can put content on these other channels so that people who are trying to at least curb the attention of their young people have places that they can direct them to.
Pius Wong 19:26
I really like that analogy. I hadn't really thought about it in terms of PBS and TV, but that makes a lot of sense. Speaking of that, are there any other people who do something similar who you admire, like PBS? Are there any digital media companies that do stuff like this?
Dr. Nehemiah Mabry 19:42
I was fortunate -- I am fortunate currently, to have a good friend and mentor where I am now, Marshall Brain who is the founder of HowStuffWorks. I know a lot of people probably heard of that brand. He started it. He's actually a professor here at North Carolina State University. And he tells me about his early days just finding out how stuff works and writing articles about it. He is no longer running the company, because he was bought by Discovery, which is another very, I would say, ubiquitous educational platform. So HowStuffWorks is something I had an opportunity to talk to someone firsthand about, how it kind of built -- and then it just also dovetails into the fact that Discovery is, I would say, a leading brand in this space. So those are those are two companies that I admire quite well. And of course, there are tons of social media companies just in general for whatever niche you're looking for -- tech, beauty, whatever. So I look at what they do, as well, and say, Hey, they're providing education in these spaces. And so what I do is really very similar, but just in the space of STEM and engineering.
Pius Wong 21:00
So going back to STEMedia then, if people want to create some kind of video or podcast or some kind of digital resource related to engineering or some other educational field, do they go to you and ask you to make it? Or how does that work, exactly?
Dr. Nehemiah Mabry 21:17
Yeah, thanks for asking. So STEMedia is a business. And so the majority of the things that we do are on behalf of other organizations, businesses, schools, people trying to engage students in science and engineering. So what you would do is really just reach out to me, Nehemiah. Go to the website, and fill out one of our "contact us" boxes, and pretty much say, Hey, this is what I would like to do. And the reason why I think this service has been good for us is because I think a lot of people have the ideas. A lot of people are are focusing on what they do best, and that is educating, or that is teaching, or that is recruiting. And there are a lot of different facets of that. However, we are able to say, hey, you want to create an animated video that explains optics? Or you want to create a skit that deals with the struggles of being an engineering student? You can just -- we can collab.
And we are able to then partner with some graphic designers, some animators, some videographers, and we can produce it according to the idea that you have. And so there, you don't have to worry about the production aspect of it. Then the benefit of myself being an engineer and being trained as an engineer, then there isn't a whole lot of "Let me explain this to you," you know? I kind of already have a background, and so I'm able to pick up on, Okay, this is the technical integrity of what you're trying to do. Now we can talk together about the creative integrity or the creative ideas that we would like to communicate to our team.
Pius Wong 22:56
That's fantastic. And it sounds like, yeah, you have a bunch of people helping you out anyway.
Dr. Nehemiah Mabry 23:00
Yeah, I've been to developing a team, kind of a nice, go-to set of talented creative people that have gotten, to some extent, used to my explanations and my vision as it relates to translating technical concepts into creative presentations. So yeah, it's fun.
Pius Wong 23:22
That's excellent. You know, we're almost out of time. But I do want to talk to you at some point, maybe not now, about the whole "starting a business" kind of thing. I've had other people who started educational businesses talk to me on the podcast before, and it's always real interesting. I frankly don't know how you have time to run a business and be, you know, a PhD engineer and all that stuff. And that sounds really amazing, frankly. So cangratulations, Nehemiah, for all these different things that you're doing.
Dr. Nehemiah Mabry 23:52
Pius Wong 23:53
How can people reach you, one more time?
Dr. Nehemiah Mabry 23:56
Yeah, sure. So personally, you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org. That's my first name: Nehemiah. You can visit STEMedia.org or find us on some of the social media channels: @_STEMedia.
Pius Wong 24:12
So you're on pretty much everything, I assume. I saw you on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter.
Dr. Nehemiah Mabry 24:18
Yeah, pretty much.
Pius Wong 24:18
And finally, one final question for all the teachers, especially teachers who may not know as much about social media. If they had to get one social media account to, I don't know, interact with the world of engineering online, what would you recommend?
Dr. Nehemiah Mabry 24:38
You know, it really depends, and of course, I was going to say that, because each platform kind of has it's strong age group or demographic. But if I had to say which one, I probably would just say, if YouTube counts, I would say get a YouTube account, if you all consider that social media, which it is in many ways. Putting content on YouTube allows you to kind of spread it and embed it several places. So that's probably what I would go with.
Pius Wong 25:08
All right, no, that's good advice. I've heard several teachers really praise it, as well, because they can incorporate that in their lessons. So that's really good to hear that from another engineer and STEM media expert.
Dr. Nehemiah Mabry 25:21
Pius Wong 25:22
Well, you, Nehemiah Mabry or Dr. Nehemiah Mabry, thank you so much for talking to me on the podcast, and I hope that we can keep on getting updates from you.
Dr. Nehemiah Mabry 25:31
Hey, Pius, it was a pleasure. Thank you so much for having me, man, and all the best to all of your listeners out there.
Pius Wong 25:41
For notes, links, and transcripts related to this episode, just visit the show website: k12engineering.net. There you'll find links to different ways to contact Nehemiah, for example. Leave a rating and a review of this episode on iTunes or Stitcher, and follow the show on Facebook or other social media. Finally, you can financially support this show by donating on Patreon at patreon.com/pioslabs. That's patreon.com/pioslabs.
Our closing music is called "Wishing" by Soiree, and you can find more music by Soiree on SoundCloud. His username is Soireebeats, or just check out the show notes for this episode to find the link. The K12 Engineering Education Podcast is a production of my independent studio, Pios Labs. Everybody, thanks for listening.