Peter Balyta: No excuses! We must help students engineer their future with STEM

Peter working with student

In Peter Balyta's unique role as president of Education Technology and vice president of Academic Engagement and Corporate Citizenship, he interacts with students and educators at all levels. In this third in a series of "Inspire STEM" articles, Peter talks about how we all can help students get involved in science, technology, engineering and math.

I have a confession: I once hated math. As a student, I sat in the back of the classroom, stared out the window and dreamed about my future hockey career. I was an athlete, and when I wasn’t on the ice, I was fine-tuning my martial arts moves or playing baseball.

It took a swift kick to the head to get me thinking about something other than sports.

That painful roundhouse kick by my opponent during a karate competition when I was a teenager left me partially paralyzed and put me in the hospital for a few weeks. I wasn’t sure whether I’d walk again, and I knew my dreams of becoming the next Wayne Gretzky were probably over. Confined to a bed, I remember staring at the clock in my hospital bed trying to figure out what time it was. I had spatial and geometric thinking, but I just couldn’t process the simple procedure of telling time. It was frustrating and frightening, and the experience made me more anxious than any math problem I ever had to solve. It took me a few days, but I started using basic math skills to figure out how to read a clock again.

Young PeterI also realized that I needed to take school seriously, which included understanding and applying math concepts -- even to my beloved sports.

Ultimately, I began my career as a math teacher and later earned a doctorate in mathematics education. My job today is leading teams whose purpose is to ensure that students learn and are inspired by science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) subjects. I get to spend my days with teachers and volunteers who love STEM as much as I do and who are passionate about getting students excited about careers in science, math or engineering.

I’m still an avid sports fan. And playing sports or aspiring to become a professional athlete is a fine career choice for some people. One of my favorite professional football players, John Urschel, recently retired from the Baltimore Ravens and is working on his doctorate in mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He is proof that star athletes can also be star students.

STEM skills are important for all kinds of careers. Philosophers, teachers, welders, engineers, humanitarians, software developers, doctors and farmers each use problem-solving skills developed by studying STEM subjects.

I’m particularly enthusiastic about STEM-focused careers and their potential to change how we all live and work. For example, self-driving cars were once thought to be impossible. But visionary engineers today are on the cusp of making that science fiction a reality. STEM professionals are driven to solve problems and create innovations – such as autonomous vehicles – that make our lives easier and more fun. 

Robotics is a fun way for students to immerse themselves in STEM. Many schools today offer robotics clubs and events that are as competitive as the sports I played when I was a kid. I’ve become active in robotics events with my son’s high-school team, so I speak from recent personal experience. The excitement on the robotics playing field is just as contagious as it is in traditional sports. And the values and skills learned on a robotics team are the same ones you will need throughout life: teamwork, problem-solving, diversity, volunteerism, confidence, integrity and perseverance.

Peter with the Allen EaglesMy enthusiasm about robotics and STEM has led me to become an advocate, and one of my passions is to inspire others, as well. So here’s something to think about:

If you’re an educator, your role is critical in preparing students to believe that new possibilities are within their reach and that they can become the problem-solvers of the 21st century. Never allow a student to say, “I’m not a math (or science) person.” Instead, help them make a connection between what they love – and by that I mean what matters to them in their world (sports for me) –  and the STEM subjects they are learning. That is when STEM will come to life for them.  Need help? TI has a number of free educational resources. If you still need help or have ideas about how to infuse interactive fun into the standard STEM learning experience, email me at balyta@ti.com.

If you’re a family member or friend, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Get involved in a robotics club! No matter your background, interest areas or education, there is a role for you. Call your student’s local middle or high school and find out if they have a robotics club. If the answer is “no,” then either email me personally (balyta@ti.com), or send a note to robotics@list.ti.com to find out how to get involved somewhere else – or better yet, fill a need by setting up a new program where one doesn’t exist. TI has a number of volunteers, mentors and partners who are ready and willing to help you get a club started.

If you’re a student, start thinking about how the lessons you’re learning now could make a difference in your life and, possibly, around the world. See if your school offers a robotics club. If so, join it. If not, bug your parents and teachers to help you get one started. And if you’re wondering how anything you’re learning even matters, remember this: What you’re learning today in the classroom will be applied in many different ways in your future.

It’s an exciting time to study and teach science, technology, engineering and math. Take advantage of the opportunities all around you. Look for new challenges. It took a swift kick to the head to get my attention and help me understand how math could change my life. I hope to inspire students to discover their potential through the fun and challenges of STEM and robotics – but, of course, without the pain of a karate kick.

I’m all-in on a quest to change STEM education. Join me on that quest!

Here are more resources to help you get started:

STEM 101: https://www.bls.gov/careeroutlook/2014/spring/art01.pdf
What kind of STEM jobs can I consider? http://www.stemjobs.com/
I’m a girl. Is a STEM career for me? https://www.girlpowered.com/
Being an engineer sounds interesting. What should I consider? Engineering insight fact sheet

Join a robotics team:

Check out more STEM education programs and resources from Texas Instruments.

Are you passionate about STEM? Do you have your own story to tell? Sign in to share your thoughts in the comments section.