STEM and Serendipity

STEM Part 2

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.  – Arthur C Clarke

A surprising amount of modern technology is the result of happy accidents. Penicillin, X-ray imaging, microwave ovens, and many more were not the goal of the lab worker but came about because the researcher was highly observant and open-minded.

While STEM knowledge is valuable, the capacity to recognize an unusual pattern and explore it is incalculably precious. Even in the science and tech communities, people vary in their encounters with serendipity. Apparently, this is a learned skill. The question is when and how does this skill arise?

We recognize happy accidents in adults when they result in significant breakthroughs. These tend to happen when the research is in highly complex environments such as pharmaceuticals and quantum mechanics. Thus, we can speculate that an information-rich setting is fertile ground. Second, interviews of “super-encounterers” who find happy surprises everywhere tend to seek out novel information just for the joy of it, the odder, the better. What others see as a waste of time they see as data gathering.

I suggest that most young children are also super-encounterers by nature. They come into this very complicated world where everything is new, and they are driven to discover all they can about it as quickly as possible.

Recent findings in neuroscience tell us that at birth, children already “know” a tremendous amount. They come pre-loaded, if you will, with many behavioral templates that they deploy and refine through direct experience with their environment. For example, it is well known that neonates are wired for language and over the first year their babbling increasingly sounds like the dialect of their parents. Parents are also programmed for this interaction and use “baby talk” and eye gaze to enhance this learning.

We have identified 20 of these programs that we have labeled Play Patterns. These templates reside primarily in the cerebellum and as they are acted upon messages are sent to the right cerebral cortex where they increasingly become under voluntary control.

Most of the current neuroscience suggests that for the most part, the left cortex, which tends to be the seat of numbers and letters, is largely dormant until the second year. I suspect that this is not entirely true. Children exhibit a unique behavior that is not accounted for in our current model of brain development, that is, serendipity. This behavior can be observed when children encounter phenomena for which they have no predefined play pattern. The telltale signs of serendipity are best characterized by rapture and wonder, in other words, “magic.”


At Gymboree Play and Music, we conjure up this magic at the end of every class. Our parachute and bubbles are now ubiquitous and for a good reason, as they evoke the wonder of childhood. Put yourself in the mind of the child. She sees the teacher dip a wire circle into what appears to be water. Pulling the loop out of the bottle, the teacher blows on the loop from which emerges a magic bubble that detaches and floats free into the air. When she explores this with her index finger, which is the child’s discovery tool, the bubble suddenly disappears entirely. Pure magic. This experience is then followed by parachute time during which a colorful “cloud” is made to rise up into the heavens under which all the children can gather. Suddenly it too magically disappears.

Whether this sort of non-pattern matching phenomena becomes, as I suspect, the early awakening of the left cerebral cortex or not, serendipitous experiences are one of the great joys of life for parents and children alike. I also contend that having such experiences helps children seek out other wondrous experiences and welcome the unique event that does not fit into a preprogrammed pattern.

My concern is that with the increasing emphasis on STEM, we may ignore this higher level of awareness. We may be educating perfectly functional people who function adequately in a technological world but at the same time conditioning them in a way that makes them blind to the magic in this world and the next reality transforming breakthrough.

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