Phillips Charitable Organizations is committed to helping individuals from underprivileged backgrounds to realize their dreams. As part of its mission, the nonprofit provides grants to help aspiring engineering students pursue a higher education, recognizing that many obstacles often stand in the way of aspiring STEM professionals.
For many students, one of the most significant barriers to success in STEM is personal motivation and self-esteem. The perceived difficulty of STEM subjects is one of the primary obstacles that dissuades many students from pursuing a career in science, math, engineering, or technology. For many students, the lofty accomplishments of the world’s greatest scientists can make even a rudimentary understanding seem out of reach. However, a recent study found that by offering a little more insight into the lives of famous scientists, educators can inspire students to explore STEM fields.
The study tracked 402 students attending the 9th and 10th-grade in the Bronx and Harlem boroughs of New York City. While one group of students simply learned about the scientific accomplishments of great minds such as Albert Einstein and Michael Faraday, another delved more in depth, focusing on the personal struggles that these scientists faced, such as poverty and religious persecution. A third group explored the professional obstacles that lined these individuals’ paths to success, such as unsuccessful theories and experiments. At the conclusion of the study, the students who had gleaned a fuller understanding of the scientists’ success were more likely to have improved their grades.
By teaching students about the accomplishments—as well as the failures and struggles—of great scientists, educators can help to humanize STEM heroes in the eyes of youth. With the understanding that genius is rarely innate, but instead the result of hard work and determination, youth may discover that they, too, are capable of pursuing STEM careers.
Following are some of the most celebrated scientists whose accomplishments resulted from perseverance in both their personal and professional lives.
In spite of humble beginnings that prevented him from pursuing a higher education, Michael Faraday leveraged his passion for knowledge to guide him to great heights. Born in 1791 in South London to a family from economically disadvantaged circumstances, he received a basic education at Sunday school before becoming an apprentice to a bookbinder at the age of 14. Faraday used this opportunity to further his education and pored over many of the scientific texts that passed through the shop. After attending a series of lectures by chemist Sir Humphry Davy, an inspired Faraday submitted his extensive scientific notes to Davy, requesting a job. Although he was initially denied, an opening on Davy’s staff brought Faraday to the Royal Institution as a chemical assistant one year later.
Faraday’s passion and initiative paid off. As Sir Davy’s assistant, he had an opportunity to expand his scientific knowledge and network with the international scientific community. In 1821, Faraday published his theory on electromagnetic rotation, which would inform such noteworthy inventions as the electric motor. His later research revealed the phenomenon of electromagnetic induction, which was instrumental in the effort to harness electricity as a powerful tool. To this day, the unit of electrical capacitance carries the name farad in his honor.
While Michael Faraday overcame the trappings of financial status to pursue scientific innovation, Marie Curie pressed on through societal norms that kept women out of the academic sphere. Born in 1867 in Warsaw, Poland, Madam Curie excelled in her early educational career and discovered a passion for science under the tutelage of her father. Since Polish universities did not welcome women at this time, she traveled to France to continue her studies at the Sorbonne. It was here that she met her future husband, physics professor Pierre Curie.
Marie Curie worked alongside her husband to expand the scientific understanding of radioactivity following its discovery in 1896. Working on modest teachers’ salaries, the pair often conducted their research in less-than-ideal laboratory environments. Despite this, Madam Curie successfully isolated radium from radioactive residue, which allowed her to explore the element’s properties and potential therapeutic applications.
Marie Curie and her husband received the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1903. After his passing in 1906, Marie Curie carried on his legacy as the Sorbonne’s first female Professor of General Physics, also becoming the director of the Curie Laboratory at the University of Paris’ Radium Institute. Continuing her research into radioactivity, she earned her second Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1911. For the remainder of her life, she was a leader in the scientific community, serving on the Committee of Intellectual Co-operation of the League of Nations.
George Washington Carver
Although he was born into slavery, George Washington Carver would go on to become one of the most influential agricultural scientists in American history. Historians generally place his birth date in 1864, shortly after which criminals kidnapped and sold him and several of his family members in Kentucky. Once located and returned to the Carver family, George Washington Carver learned how to read and write from the family’s matriarch, who furnished him with the education that local schools refused to provide to black children. Undaunted by the racist realities of 19th-century academia, Carver went on to graduate from high school and apply to college. Initially denied acceptance due to his race, he took charge of his own education and ran a homestead where he conducted biological, geological, and botanical research.
After discovering that he had an aptitude for botanical drawing, Carver earned a spot at Iowa State Agricultural College, where he received both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Subsequently, he received an invitation to oversee the agricultural department at the Tuskegee Institute. Here, George Washington Carver undertook his most celebrated experiments, discovering hundreds of new applications for crops, including soybeans, pecans, and sweet potatoes. However, he is perhaps best known for the numerous new products he synthesized from peanuts, including dyes, soaps, cosmetics, and even gasoline. His innovations not only helped to revitalize the agricultural economy of the post-Civil War south, but they influenced agricultural research for decades to come.