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STEM Education 5: What Difference Do Family and Privilege Make to Success?

A strong family helps a STEM nerd succeed. However, a “strong family” is not necessarily a family that had an easy ride, as my own story shows.

Gifted STEM nerds today can overcome hardships and achieve comfortable professional and economic success. Talent is not the only ingredient. The support of a strong family helps enormously. However, a “strong family” is not necessarily a family that had an easy ride, as my own story shows.

My maternal grandmother, Hazel Hersman, was abandoned by her husband Ernest when she was pregnant with her fifth child. He suffered a nervous breakdown due to his experiences in World War I and went to live with his sister instead. Today we might call the breakdown post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) but back then it was more graphically termed “shell shock.”

My grandmother and her five kids moved from Akron, Ohio to Sand Fork, West Virginia. She taught school for a living while working part-time toward an undergraduate degree in education. A proud Appalachian, she would never have considered welfare (then called “relief”), even when the house burned down, with all the family’s belongings and they were living for a while in a corn crib.

Hazel taught her kids cleanliness and hard work but she also emphasized education. She was the force behind their later success and poverty was no obstacle to that. Her three daughters ended up as elementary school teachers and her two sons became engineers. Encouraged by my grandmother Hazel, my mother Lenore, who had a gift for teaching, got her teaching certificate when she was only 17. As an engineering professor, I guess I could say, looking back, it’s in my blood.

Image result for coal mining images West Virginia public domain
Bradshaw, a West Virginia coal mining town/National Archives

Mom’s first teaching job was in a West Virginia coal mining town. Company towns could use their monopolies in those days to establish conditions close to slave labor. The coal miners were paid in company scrip, a type of money redeemable only at the store owned by the coal company. Mom, a teacher, was paid in scrip. The coal company also owned all the houses and collected rent in company scrip. Brave unions often moved into coal towns and organized labor to get better pay and fairer treatment. Company resistance to union organization often resulted in bloodshed.1

My father’s parents lived on a farm back in the hollers of West Virginia. My grandfather had a third-grade education but his wife was an elementary school teacher. As a boy, I cringe at the memory of the outdoor toilets. At night I rarely made the trek, 40 feet from the main house, for fear of snakes that might be living down the hole…

But there were pleasant memories too. A coal truck would periodically dump a load of coal 20 feet in front of my grandparents’ house. Coal was the sole source of heating and cooking fuel, which meant a number of round trips with the coal bucket from the house to the coal pile and back, to keep the house warm and toasty. Even so, the fire would die out during winter nights and the house reached freezing point. Water left in a cup on the table was ice by morning. To keep us warm at night, Grandma would load our beds with layers of quilts so heavy that we couldn’t sleep on our backs because the weight prevented our toes from pointing upwards.

After my dad came back from World War II, he tried various occupations. To start with, he figured he’d take a stab at hauling freight. He bought a large truck but the winding West Virginia mountain roads had other ideas. He ran his rig off the road, down a steep hill, and it was totaled. So Mom and Dad pulled their remaining resources together and bought The Log Cabin, a small restaurant in Glenville, West Virginia.

I am told they abandoned the business in part because I was difficult to control as a toddler. Back then, empty glass soda bottles were returned to the bottlers to be washed and reused. I was found, on more than one occasion, searching for traces of the sweet nectar amid the empty bottles waiting to be returned. At any rate, Dad and Mom sold their West Virginia restaurant and moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where there were jobs other than coal mining. As West Virginians joked at the time, people needed to be taught “reading, writing and route 21 to Cleveland.” There Mom landed a teaching job and Dad joined the Operating Engineers Local 18 union. They made a decent living and bought a house in Garfield Heights, a lower-middle-class suburb.

The money was good, but the environment was a bad place to raise kids. In high school, I began to run with gangs and do many things I’m not proud of. Dad and Mom scraped together money for me to go to college instead. This all happened during the Vietnam War and, in any event, if I didn’t have a college deferment, I would be drafted. If you recall, my mother’s father had had a PTSD breakdown from his experiences in World War I and her brother had been a Nazi POW during World War II. She swore she would not let her son become a victim of war like her father and brother. So off I went to college instead.

My high school grades were average so I was not offered any scholarships. Dad and Mom’s sacrifice paid the full tuition at a private college, Rose-Hulman, which was not cheap. Through my first two years, I had a bad attitude and a poor work ethic. Thus, even though I had decided to become an electrical engineer, I failed my first electrical engineering course along with the lab that went with it. I was hanging on academically by the skin of my teeth. If it not been for the looming Vietnam War, Dad and Mom would have probably pulled the plug.

Then the most wonderful event in my life happened. I was presented with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I repented and gave myself to Christ. Everything now made sense! I now had a reason for living and a motive for accomplishment. So I began to apply myself at college and soon removed all doubts in my own mind I was a gifted STEM nerd. I finished my undergraduate education in a flurry and found funding for my subsequent graduate degrees. I was blessed.

Here’s the takeaway if you sense that you are a nerd but wonder if the opportunities are out there for you. The current economic status of your family is only a secondary concern if you are an aspiring STEM nerd. If you are gifted and work to make the best of what you have, your talents can raise you from a past of scary outhouses, gangs, and sucking on day-old soda leavings from the bottom of pop bottles.

Now, that’s not the whole story, of course. The loving support of my family really mattered to me. My son Joshua teaches many highly disadvantaged high school students. Many are from dysfunctional, low-income families and qualify for the school’s free meal plan. The sense of parental support my mother, Joshua, and I knew is just not there for them. As Joshua reminds me, some of the kids he teaches have no one they can count on if life sours. That’s one reason many of these students are big fans of uncaring Big Brother government. It’s not as if they have an alternative.

In general, the backing of family helps achieve success in all professions. In his autobiography, Gifted Hands,, Ben Carson, neurosurgeon extraordinaire and current United States Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, was raised in the poor district of Detroit. His dedicated mother Sonya encouraged him in the success he later achieved. Likewise, Clarence Thomas, whose grandfather, Myers Anderson, instilled in him a strict work ethic that transformed his life.2 Thomas was appointed, despite much opposition, to the United States Supreme Court by President George H. W. Bush as the Court’s second African-American member.

To sum up, the earlier an aspiring STEM nerd applies him- or herself, the better. Grade school success in math and science will lead to high school curriculum dedicated to more advanced nerd topics. Study hard, get good grades and do well on the SAT college admissions tests. Especially the quantitative tests. The scholarships will brighten your professional and economic future. Sadly, there are embryonic nerds among today’s students whose talents will never be identified and cultivated. It’s hard to look to down the road when you’re either ignorant of your choices or are neck deep in a ditch of unsupported disadvantage. In the next installment of this series, I will discuss how embryonic nerds can be identified, motivated, and encouraged to flourish.


1 A 1987 movie describing a coal miners’ strike in 1920, set in Matawan, West Virginia, Matewan, gives viewers a sense of company coal towns and the violent strikes and retaliations that sometimes resulted.

2 Thomas titled his autobiography so as to make that clear: My Grandfather’s Son: A Memoir

See also: STEM EDUCATION 1. STEM Education 1. Pursuing Nerd Quality Over Nerd Quantity

STEM EDUCATION 2. Stem Education 2. Not Everyone is Lucky Enough to Be A Nerd

STEM EDUCATION 3. Killing People and Breaking Things Modern history suggests that military superiority driven by technology can be a key factor in deterring aggression and preventing mass fatalities

STEM Education 4. Do STEM Nerds Need to Learn Latin? Well-roundedness is appropriate in applied STEM curricula to the extent that it rounds out the skills necessary for success as a STEM professional.

Robert J. Marks is the Director of the Walter Bradley Center for Natural and Artificial Intelligence and holds the position of Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Baylor University.

Also by Robert Marks: Why we can’t just ban killer robots

and

Ai That Can Read Minds? Deconstructing AI hype

Also: The Hills Go High-Tech An American community finding its way in the new digital economy


STEM Education 5: What Difference Do Family and Privilege Make to Success?