For many students, the list of subjects included in STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – doesn’t inspire the same level of passion and interest as other subjects. This is a shame, because many STEM careers are lucrative and the industries they’re in just keep growing.
Almost half of students expressed an interest in STEM majors and occupations, including a healthy number of female students (46%). But that expressed interest hasn’t yet translated into a diversification in who’s getting jobs in STEM. In engineering, computer, and math sciences professions women still seriously lag behind men. And racial minorities don’t fare much better.
Many people have ideas about ways STEM can be discussed and taught to interest more of the student population. For the students who see less appeal in numbers and facts than stories and ideas, STEM subjects don’t have to seem dry and lifeless. So much of how students feel about STEM depends on how they learn about it.
Use Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to talk about math and logic, or A Wrinkle in Time as a launching board to discuss physics. Or assign the popular podcast Star Talk, in which Neil Degrasse Tyson talks with (often famous) guests about the intersection between scientific inquiry and pop culture, taking on subjects like the science of superheroes and the zombie apocalypse.
Every year brings new big blockbusters that incorporate science and tech. What can students learn about space from Interstellar? (Google can help with that one.) Terminator can inspire a discussion about A.I., and Captain America can tie in to a lesson on the tech actually developed by the country during WWII.
Showing the role science and math play in stories and creativity can make all those students who think they only care about English and history realize that science actually has a lot going for it too.
For some students, the challenge of STEM is that it seems distant from the concerns of their everyday life. Brainstorm assignments that show them how they encounter STEM in their day-to-day. You could have students each research a tech advancement that saved lives or otherwise made the world better. The possibilities are seemingly endless:
That’s just a starter list. This site that celebrates scientist lifesavers can help you generate a few more ideas.
For a less lofty way to show science’s relevance, you could tell your students to each pick an object they encounter every day and research what goes into making it. Your iPhone doesn’t work on magic, and all sorts of everyday objects contain some kind of chemicals or minerals people never think about.
Most students are taught about concepts like negative numbers as though they’re the truth, plain and simple. In fact, they were controversial and different mathematicians made impassioned arguments for and against them over many years before they became largely accepted.
How much more interesting are negative numbers to you now than they were five minutes ago?
Debate makes subjects more engaging — specially a debate that students can get riled up about on both sides.
STEM subjects bring up ample opportunities for heated debates, such as:
One way to get students really invested in researching a subject is to raise the stakes. Can your opinion (or the one you’re assigned to defend) stand up against someone else’s arguments?
Whether you can get them to come into the classroom itself or instead set up a Skype call, people in STEM professions can clue students in to what those jobs look like day in and day out.
You get bonus points here for inviting successful people working in STEM fields that don’t look like the norm. Women and people of color making their mark on predominantly white and male professions will show your students that they don’t have to fit into a certain box to pursue those careers themselves. MIT has a series of videos on their website that show the experiences and insights of a diverse array of chemists. That’s the kind of thing that can help students of all types visualize themselves in a STEM career.
No teacher needs to be told that every student is different. While it’s certainly not easy, working with individual students to come up with project ideas based on something they’re already passionate about can make for some real excitement.
A book lover could be assigned a seminal science fiction text and asked to do an assignment on the scientific issues explored in the book. A sports lover could be asked to analyze the math and physics behind the sport – how do angles, shapes, and distances play into creating the game they love? A photography enthusiast could be tasked with identifying and recording different plants and animals in her neighborhood.
A project that incorporates something they already love will feel more personal to each student than anything assigned to the whole class. It would give them an excuse to take ownership over their work and research in a way that will stick with them longer than many other assignments.
STEM doesn’t have to be a dry subject. Professionals and researchers are doing fascinating things in the STEM field every day. Students need a way to see that side of the story.