Miss America: High Schools Squelch Natural Curiosity of Children

Toddlers begin with curiosity, end up as test-takers, says Mallory Hytes Hagan.

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"If I'd have known I could have made my own lipstick instead of just wearing it I might have had a different path," Miss America Mallory Hytes Hagan said, regarding careers in STEM.

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Toddlers are natural scientists. They observe, analyze and experiment to solve problems. But somewhere along the way, that curiosity is squashed, according to experts speaking today at the 2013 U.S. News STEM Solutions conference in Austin, Texas.

"Schools aren't supporting these tendencies … instead they educate them out of children," said Christine Cunningham, vice president of research at the Museum of Science in Boston.

Focusing on memorization and facts, instead of application and problem solving, takes children's hands off science and diminishes their interest, Cunningham said Tuesday during a panel discussion about early science, technology, engineering and math education.

[READ: Fostering Innovation in High Schools]

That focus continues through high school and leaves students unprepared to study STEM at the college level, said Miss America Mallory Hytes Hagan.

"As I moved through middle school and high school my classroom was geared toward test scores," Hagan said, adding that she didn't set foot in a real science lab until recently.

Assignments and class time were devoted to filling out packets and regurgitating that information on a test at the end of the week, she said.

"I learned next to nothing in high school physics. Same thing in anatomy, same thing in chemistry," Hagan said.

[RANKINGS: Top High Schools for STEM]

This disconnect made for an eye opening experience at Auburn University, where Hagan spent a year studying biomedical science. She later transferred to the Fashion Institute of Technology.

"I hit that first chem lab and thought, "Whoa, what's going on?'" she said.

Beyond leaving her unprepared for college-level coursework, middle and high school science classes did little to teach about STEM careers, Hagan said.

"If I'd have known I could have made my own lipstick instead of just wearing it I might have had a different path."

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