With a wide smile, U.S. Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith pointed to the auditorium balcony at City Honors School on Friday, recalling the time she spent perched there as lighting director for her class’s theatrical presentation of “The Music Man.”
“It feels pretty special for me to be here because this is the school that built me,” Smith said.
The 1982 City Honors graduate now assists President Obama putting technology policy, data and innovation to work for the nation in her role as the U.S. Chief Technology Officer at the Office of Science and Technology Policy. She spoke to students at her alma mater about her journey from City Honors to MIT, around the world as an engineer and entrepreneur, before becoming a vice president at Google and landing in the White House. She gives much of the credit for her success to the learning environment at City Honors, which she said takes highly-motivated kids and pulls on their passions to engage them in active learning across all subjects, respecting “the kids and their talents.”
“If all the schools were like City Honors, our world would be a different place,” Smith said.
Project-based learning – where students learn by exploring, investigating, solving problems and making things – is a key.
“More toys, less testing,” Smith said. “Give kids more of those beloved experiences learning extraordinary things and spend less time taking tests.”
Learning shouldn’t be segregated, either.
“The universe doesn’t separate subjects into biology, history, math,” she said. “When you’re in Phys Ed, you’re also learning about physics.”
Smith also prefers the acronym “STEAM” to the more buzzy “STEM,” saying the “A” for arts should be just as highly valued and integrated as science, technology, engineering and math.
“Look at Steve Jobs and the iPhone,” she said. “There is so much art in technology.”
As a student at City Honors, the math team and the science fair were for everyone – not just a certain group of self-selecting students – and expectations were high.
“I always liked to make things, but it was the exposure, and the idea that any kid can be good at anything, that made the difference,” she said.
Exposure builds confidence and quells the intimidation that often surrounds STEM courses, she said.
“People have no problem saying, ‘I’m not good at math,’ or ‘I was never good at science,’ but nobody ever says, ‘Yeah, I was never too good at that whole reading thing,’ ” Smith said.
It’s important for kids to know the contributions women and people of color have made to innovation and research over the years, to overcome the misconception that white men are responsible for all of the accomplishments in the field. That portrayal of innovation can stunt the next generation’s efforts.
“Everyone hits speed bumps when they’re learning,” Smith said. “When boys hit a speed bump, they think, ‘This is difficult.’ When girls hit a speed bump they think,’I’m not good at this.’
Despite a progressive upbringing – her father founded the Essex Arts Center on Buffalo’s West Side, her mother was director of the Chautauqua Children’s School – Smith recalled that her grandfather was surprised (though ultimately proud) when he learned his granddaughter wanted to be an engineer. Female engineers still face those stereotypes everywhere from the schoolyard to Silicon Valley, and much of Smith’s life has been devoted to changing that.
She made progress toward that end Friday at City Honors. After hearing Smith speak, 10th grader Mariam Al-Jabi Lopez told principal William A. Kresse it cemented her desire to become an engineer.
Ninth grader Leah Norton was similarly inspired.
“I just figured out this year that I want to be an engineer,” Norton said. “I’ve always wanted to travel, to create things, to help people and she’s done it all.”