Sometimes Lisa Finke's smartphone launches into a puzzling harangue she knows darn well does not exist on her settings menu. It doesn't take her long to figure out what that persistent ping is all about.
"Oh, that's just Andrew using his special skills to get my attention," she'll realize.
Finke's 13-year-old son Andrew not only has mystifying powers over cell phones and laptops, he also has a precocious knack for generating cash.
This eighth-grader at Central Middle School in Glencoe has sold seven apps marketed through Apple, banking fees on more than 500 downloads. He earns $50 an hour as a private technology consultant helping clueless adults learn to use their baffling electronic gadgets.
"It's proven quite profitable," he says with a tone of understated delight.
Andrew is discovering that mastering math and science pays. STEM jobs are projected to grow by 17 percent by 2018, while other jobs see a comparatively tepid 9.8 percent growth. It's great work if you can get it. STEM workers earn 26 percent more than their non-STEM counterparts. While unemployment rates nationally hover around 9 percent (17 percent for African Americans), only 2.4 percent of those with STEM degrees are unemployed.
If only there were a quarter million more just like Andrew, educators and economists say, maybe the country could stay competitive in an increasingly technology-focused global marketplace.
Science, technology, engineering and math-STEM-are the four formidable subjects the state of Illinois and the rest of the country need to seriously shore up if the United States is going to compete on the worldwide economic scene.
"In our technology-rich world, with global competition, core skills in these areas are the price of admission to full participation in nearly every phase of life," says Richard Herman, chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Over the next five years, experts predict 1.25 million new jobs in science and engineering. Come 2020, 17 of the 20 fastest-growing occupations will be in health care and tech professions. No one knows where they're going to find enough teachers to make that happen.
Those who can do the math will see that Illinois is particularly scientifically challenged. Less than one-third of Illinois students meet the "proficient" level of competency, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Most alarming is the trajectory showing that as kids move through the grades, their science skills actually sink. In fourth grade, 71 percent meet or exceed the proficiency standards; by junior year of high school, only 53 percent still make the mark.
But wait, there's more bad news. The disparity between the scores of Illinois' low-income fourth-graders and their higher-income peers is the widest in the nation.
So why do a few kids "get" math and science when so many others don't?
Experts like Andrew Finke and Illinois science professionals echo the same answer: Teachers and parents both factor in the STEM equation.
Andrew tells of friends getting "shot down" when they ask questions in math and science classes. Too many boring chapter tests and too few "aha experiences" leave kids feeling science is a yawn.
"They just get discouraged and think 'I guess this is not for me,'" he says.
Science also commonly gets short shrift in elementary school days, says Lizanne DeStefano, director of the I-STEM, a U of I education initiative to boost the number and quality of STEM teachers, particularly women and minorities.
"Teachers tend to rely on memorization of facts," she says. "They don't provide the kind of creative engagement that makes kids feel empowered. They need to feel they're good at it. They need a personal connection to something that's real and gives meaning to their world."
Building a "wow" factor into the science experience is the key to tapping natural curiosity, say the people at the helms of Chicago's science museums.
Ann Marie Walker, with Discovery Center Museum in Rockford, wants to have science explorers not only sitting on the edge of their seats, but jumping out of them. The museum's inventing lab gives families a taste of mechanical problem-solving by building a glider that hangs in the air when launched off a two-story vertical pulley system. The museum also sponsors workshops for teachers, showing how to build rockets and design erupting volcanoes in the classroom. Science mentors meet with at-risk students every afternoon.
When kids build a wobbly space station at the Chicago Children's Museum, for example, kids learn about the stabilizing perks of the triangle, says Natalie Bortoli, a vice president at the museum. When they marvel at a man lying on a bed of nails, they unlock the secrets of physics.
"Children are born with a natural inclination to try to figure out how their world works," Bortoli says. "Our task is to find ways to harness and support their natural curiosity."
Discovery doesn't need to stop when the kids get off the school bus. In fact, parents can foster learning at home long before a toddler sets out for preschool.
Parents can turn bath time into water exploration class when containers of different sizes, funnels and sponges unlock concepts of floating and sinking, flow and volume.
"You don't have to build a science lab in your basement to help kids build that set of skills," says Bortoli. "Anytime there is time and space and a piece of the physical world, that's an opportunity to explore and question."
Experts have found that kids get more out of science when they learn along with parents. That's why most Chicago area science museums promote parent-child classes that foster experiences the whole family can take home.
Andrew's talent for math and science began to bloom when, in fourth grade, teachers came to rely on him as the "go-to guy" for classroom SMART boards. His parents, Lisa and Tom, encouraged his passion. They built incentives into Andrew's lust for techno toys, requiring him to submit spreadsheets to support purchases of new household tech purchases and to earn the money to buy them. Figuring a dozen math problems was the currency to buy Xbox time.
"We gave him ownership and responsibility for his talents," Lisa Finke says.
But the real burst came when they sent Andrew to iD Tech camp at Northwestern University about four years ago. iD Tech Camps, also offered at Lake Forest College, are hands-on STEM courses that focus on preparing students for today's job market. Science buffs 7-17 enroll in weeklong, day and overnight summer programs where they can rub elbows with mentors who are real pros in tech jobs. During the past 13 years, more than 130,000 students at 60 universities worldwide have learned to create video games, iPhone apps, Java programs, websites, movies, 3D animations, ad designs, and even robots.
This summer, Andrew's going to an iD Tech camp at Stanford University.
"It gives me the chance to be creative, not just a book-learning experience," Andrew says. "I get to meet people who are really making a living doing the things I love to do."
The launch of Sputnik in 1957 was the call for our parents' generation to turn out more scientists and engineers. But what if today's campaign to funnel fresh minds into STEM fields fails?
The country is at a "tipping point" where other nations are likely to emerge as leaders in scientific innovation, DeStefano says. Over the past five years, that scale has been continuing to tilt in the wrong direction.
"Americans could find ourselves more reliant on foreign scientists and engineers to lead the way," she says.
More than three-quarters (78 percent) of U.S. high school graduates in 2008 did not meet benchmarks for entry-level college courses in mathematics, science, reading and English, ACT statistics show. The World Economic Forum ranks the U.S. 48th in the quality of its math and science education.
The nation's competitive outlook has dimmed since 2005, when that year's "Gathering Storm" report called for bolstering K-12 education and doubling the federal research budget. That is also the conclusion of "Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Revisited: Rapidly Approaching Category 5," a 2010 report called for by the presidents of the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering and Institute of Medicine, and authored by the same committee that wrote the 2005 assessment.
While other nations have been markedly progressing, America's ability to draw new factories, research laboratories and jobs is slipping. In the past, DeStefano says, graduate students who came from other countries to study science and engineering were hoping for careers in the states. More and more, she sees them taking their skills back to their mother country.
"We may educate the next generation of scientists and engineers, but they will not necessarily work in the U.S.," she says.
You can find Andrew's apps on iTunes. Search for atfinke productions.
Robyn Monaghan is a mother and long-time journalist.
See more of Robyn's stories here.