You've heard of social media influencers... but what about STEM influencers?
They're pretty much what they sound like. Instead of trying to get teens to buy into the latest product or fad, they're trying to turn them on to the world of science, technology, engineering and math. NBCLX caught up with two women who've developed a rabid following on social media by removing the obstacles to subjects like math and science that many find intimidating.
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Samantha Yammine is a neuroscientist and popular science communicator better known as Science Sam. Yammine earned her Ph.D. from the University of Toronto studying how stem cells build and maintain the brain, and then went on to found Science Sam Media, a science-based digital production agency.
Yammine says she wants to empower young people to explore science by making it more familiar, accessible, and inclusive. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic she's been sharing the science behind the headlines as @science.sam on Instagram and TikTok, garnering millions of views every month to better help people assess risk, spot misinformation, and have informed discussions with their friends and family.
NBCLX: So how does one become a STEM Influencer?
Yammine: It's really about trying to bring someone into the world of science, technology, engineering and math. It's not a STEM trying to influence what they do, but rather giving them fact-based information so they can make evidence-based decisions.
NBCLX: How do you get teens interested in a subject like science, especially today when there are so many other distractions?
Yammine: People are inherently curious about the world. You look at young kids, they are interested in the world. They ask questions and they do the same thing that scientists do. They ask questions and try to figure out the answers. I think many people have an innate interest in science, but as they go through the schooling system and grow up we start to think of science as the stuff we see in textbooks and what we've been told in the classroom, and there's so much more to it.
NBCLX: How does social media come into play?
Yammine: There are many fantastic science communicators with tons of success on TikTok where people have questions and they can get an answer. I think social media is one of the few platforms where you can really be interactive. What people really appreciate about science communication on social media is that they can be heard. And that's really an important thing for teenagers, for everyone... to actually be heard and be centered in the conversations and on social media you can do that. People can comment and you can make a whole video reply to that comment or question.
NBCLX: How important is it to meet younger people on their level in terms of pulling them into subjects like math and science?
Yammine: It's incredibly important that we remove the gatekeeping that exists to access the science information. And in fact, it's especially important to share science on social media because that's where a lot of pseudosciences are being shared. Going through Instagram and I love to see credible information, but I was also seeing a ton of hoaxes being spread. And so it made me realize how important it was to share science in the same places where people are seeing things that aren't true.
NBCLX: How has the pandemic changed your interactions with the young people you're interacting with?
Yammine: I get a lot of questions about the safety of vaccines and how do we know we can trust these. And there is so much great information on social media, that I'm able to connect people to. There are people with vaccine hesitancy but really what I see is a lot of people with valid questions and they just want to hear from a trusted source.
Yes, Math Can Be Cool
Vanessa Vakharia is the founder and director of The Math Guru. Known as the Lady Gaga of math education, Vakharia operates her boutique math & science tutoring studio in Toronto. She is also the host of the Math Therapy podcast, author of Math Hacks, and lead singer/keytarist for rock band Goodnight, Sunrise
NBCLX: When we're talking about the subject of math there are so many people who just have a phobia of the subject. How do you pull teens into the world of math and make it interesting?
Vakharia: My role as a math influencer is to make it clear that anyone can do math. There's no such thing as a 'math person.' That myth is really harmful. The way I engage students scrolling through Instagram is to say 'Hey! You're probably being told you can't do math. And I'm here to tell you that's not true and why you should care.'
NBCLX: You have an interesting backstory. How do you go from being someone who failed math twice in the 11th grade to being a math guru?
Vakharia: For me, it really was a teacher. I failed 11th-grade math twice. I wanted to marry Keanu Reeves and be a rock star. I was always told I wasn't a math person. I would be told you're either creative or you're mathematical, like that made sense. So no one would encourage me when I was failing. But my parents said you need to graduate high school. So they ended up sending me to this alternative school. And I had this teacher who was just adamant that there was no such thing as a math person and that I could do it. And I got a 98 in math that year. This stereotype that only certain people can do math isn't about math. It's about confidence.
NBCLX: That sounds like a life-changing experience.
Vakharia: It was about me being like there's something in this world that I can't do. That thing is math. What else can I not do? And when that teacher showed me that was a lie I started to be like 'What else is a lie?' So it inspired me to do this because I realized that so many kids at a young age are taught that they can't do math. That's the first obstacle they face. And it sets them up for a lifetime of limiting beliefs. So if we can get to them early and say hey of course you can do math. Everyone can do everything. I think it can really change the game for them.
NBCLX: So what's the long term objective?
Vakharia: I want to change math culture. I literally want to change the culture of mathematics so that it is more inclusive and accessible to everyone. I don't need everyone going into STEM or learning calculus, but I want every single person on the planet to feel capable enough to say, 'Yeah, I'm not going to have a meltdown when I see a percent sign and I feel relatively confident reading the news and knowing what's going on.'