STEM Conferences: Inspiring the Next Generation

In ninth grade, I received an email out of the blue from the media director of Summit Elementary, a local school. She was organizing a day-long STEM conference for third to sixth grade students and invited me to be a keynote speaker.

I had to read the email several times to believe what it said—she wanted me to be a keynote speaker? Aside from class presentations, I had almost no public speaking experience, especially when it came to little kids. What surprised me more, however, was that the media director believed I had something interesting enough to talk about. I was just a freshman in high school—why would elementary kids want to hear from me?

It’s notoriously difficult to keep an elementary kid’s attention for 45 minutes, let alone inspire them, but I decided to view the keynote as a challenge. I accepted the invitation to talk; that was the easy part. The difficult part was crafting a speech. I debated for hours about what to say, trying to decide if I should aim to be philosophical or witty or some combination of both. 

In the end, however, I decided to just tell my story. 

When the big day came and the students began to file into the gym for the speech, I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t nervous. However, when the media director finished introducing me to the kids, I stepped up and turned on my microphone. 

Anna MacLennan, Rose Arnell, and Connor Blandford: the three keynote speakers at the 2018 Summit Elementary STEM Conference

Standing at the front of the gym, I could feel all eyes on me, from the restless and eager third graders, to the slightly more patient sixth graders, to the faculty lining the walls. They were all waiting to hear what I had to say, so I simply began to speak.

 I spoke about my experience as an elementary kid when I never thought I was capable of building electronics or inventing. Back then, I thought such things were only for adults or a small niche of people who were born with a special gift for technology.

I spoke about my experience as a middle school kid when I took a class that challenged me to build something using a computer chip. That year, I spent the entire quarter researching and tinkering, and by the end, I’d built a wearable camera glove that actually worked.

I spoke about my experience as a high school student, when I looked back upon what I’d been able to accomplish and finally realized that through my limited expectations, I’d been standing in the way of my own dreams all along.

What I hope the elementary kids learned from my speech at the conference was that believing in yourself might not accomplish everything, but when paired with curiosity and passion, self-confidence can allow you to achieve dreams that you never thought possible.

Keynote speakers Connor Blandford and Anna MacLennan talking with students after the 2018 Summit Elementary STEM Conference

When I was finished speaking and the kids were forming lines to exit the gym, a little girl broke away and approached me. Shyly, she whispered that she thought I was inspiring. I thanked her, then stood dumbfounded as she skipped back to rejoin her class. 

In the months that followed, I found myself reflecting on the girl’s words. I decided that I wanted to speak in a setting like the conference again. Sharing my story with elementary kids had turned out to be unexpectedly gratifying. Never in my time rehearsing my speech had I dared to hope that I might actually get through to the kids, but to hear straight from a little girl that I had inspired her? That inspired me.

As school began again in the fall, I reached out to the principal at Sherwood Elementary School (which I attended as a child) hoping to take part in the planning of their STEM conference. He connected me with the school’s learning design specialist who was in the early stages of organizing one, and she allowed me to join her on the project. I spent the next few months recruiting speakers and session leaders while also assisting with overall conference organization. 

Ericka Thompson- Sherwood Elementary School learning design specialist, Anna MacLennan, Michael Gorton- CEO of Back to Space, and Dan Hamilton- Principal of Sherwood Elementary.

It was during the planning stage of this STEM conference that I was selected to be a Back to Space student ambassador, which gave me an amazing national platform to share my love of STEM. The ambassadorship also placed me in a unique position to bring a special opportunity to the elementary kids.

About a month before the conference, I visited the sixth graders of Sherwood Elementary and said to them, “If you could ask an astronaut one question, what would it be?” Through my Back to Space ambassadorship, I arranged to record an interview with Apollo 15 astronaut Al Worden. I asked him several of the students’ questions and when the interview was shown at the conference, the students were able to learn the answers. It gave the students the unforgettable experience of ‘interacting’ with a living hero and pioneer. As astronaut Sally Ride once said, “You can’t be what you can’t see.”

Anna MacLennan giving her keynote speech at the 2019 Sherwood Elementary STEM Conference

Just like I’d hoped, I also got to speak at the Sherwood Elementary STEM Conference and I look forward to helping to organize it again in the coming years. At my high school, I also founded a public speaking club to empower more students to use their stories to inspire others. 

To everyone out there, always remember: your voice is strong and your story is powerful.

Never be afraid to share it. You never know who might be inspired.

Post by Anna MacLennan

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