For the past few weeks, I’ve been staying up into the wee hours of Wednesday night so that I can be a part of the Big Beacon Twitter conversation that happens from 1 am to 2 am Greenwich mean time. It’s an hour where I’m able to share my thoughts on engineering education with enthusiasts from around the globe. I’m also usually the youngest person involved in these conversations which does feel awkward and cumbersome at times, but it gives me a unique perspective that I’m happy to share with others. One of the most interesting topics (to me) that came up this past week was the idea of geeks and nerds and what these words mean to different people.
I have been a self-diagnosed nerd since about sixth grade. I had all of your classic symptoms: watching Bill Nye the Science Guy the newest Lizzie McGuire (or whatever cable TV was popular at the time), reading books when most of my classmates were playing soccer and football, and spending all my after school time in academic pursuits such as Mathcounts and Power of the Pen. Trust me, I’m well aware that I was unusual kid and I remain a quirky bird for the most part. The beauty of the friendships I made in junior high school (many of which last to this day, despite living in different states and countries) was that my friends all had such a love for books and things like Pokemon that they proudly called themselves nerds and geeks.
As more and more attention is turned to the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields, enthusiasts debate the best method of attracting more students. There’s a major emphasis on changing the conversation to break down engineering concepts so that anyone regardless of age and profession can understand in a way best characterized by Dr. Hammack’s Engineer Guy videos. Another major wind of change is to eliminate words and phrases that might discourage student from pursuing STEM careers, showing that creativity is a much a part of engineering as math and science is, if not more so. One of the words that STEM education enthusiasts have been trying to eliminate is the word “nerd”.
However, there was so much backlash over this, that educators have decided to no longer take a stance on the word. Many seasoned educators and professionals do not fully understand this backlash. As an undergraduate with a foot in both worlds, I decided to explore the concept of nerds and geeks among my peers via social media and the Internet. Because I’m a nineteen year old and the Internet and social media are two things I know very, very, very well.
People of my age demographic (roughly between ages 15-25) have become open to the idea of nerds and geeks. I still remember a poster in my seventh grade science teacher’s classroom saying that in twenty years it wouldn’t matter what I looked like or what I wore. What would matter? What I had accomplished. My K-12 education encouraged me to be a geek or nerd because as a child I was told that geeks and nerds would be in charge of everyone else someday. Why? Because we, myself included, were the kids who worked hard and cared about learning, cared about our future. Nerds and geeks were not openly well-liked necessarily, but we banded together under the label and found a sense of pride. I don’t think nerds and geeks will be in charge everyone someday, but there will always be a need for us. In high school, the nerd pride remained as all of my best friends were people in my AP classes and band with me. We loved being nerds and geeks together.
An internet representation of what it means to be a nerd. But is this really true? Should it be true? I don’t think so.
When I asked this question on Facebook, I received a variety of answers. Some people simply don’t care, as long as they aren’t being picked on for it. Others like being called a nerd because it makes them feel smart. Others have more complicated views. A senior in chemical engineering made a good point that the words nerd and geek are often used in the wrong context because they are not well-defined. There are still slight negative connotations with being a nerd or a geek. One friend wrote that he preferred to be a “cool nerd” because he disliked the stereotype that nerds have poor social skills when he likes sports and music in addition to geeky interests like Doctor Who and Star Wars. The best summation of the nerd culture present in the current crop of high school and college student came from Samantha Fuchs, a sophomore at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign: “I like being called a nerd because to me, the word indicates a culture of the pursuit of knowledge and understanding.”
When you look at the Internet,  it is clear that people of all ages have embraced nerd culture and are proud of it. One man used his computer skills and interest in creating a workout program for everyone who sits at work on their computers all day to make Nerd Fitness. There’s a website called Think Geek that sells everything from Star Trek bathrobes to Iron Man power bands. Hank and John Green of YouTube (known as the Vlogbrothers) call their followers “Nerdfighters”, a theme which has taken over Tumblr as well. Even Pinterest, the female social media phenomenon, has a Pinterest geek category.
Thus, there is no need to eliminate the words geek and nerd from our vocabularies. We simply must continue to change the meaning and allow the words to evolve. Geek and nerd should be positive words identifying people who love to garner knowledge for the good of the world, while also enjoying life and all the world has to offer. That’s it. I’ll see you next week. Or the week after, depending on future travel plans here in the UK. Until then, don’t forget to be awesome.
For further reading, I recommend BBC’s article Are ‘geek’ and ‘nerd’ now positive terms?. If you’re interested in joining us, Big Beacon Twitter conversations about engineering education occur on Wednesday night from 8 pm to 9 pm EST #BigBeacon and you can learn more about Twitter conversations here.

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