5 Ways to Make STEM More Exciting For Students

Image via Flickr by Maryam

Image via Flickr by Maryam

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.

5 Tips for More Exciting STEM Lessons

1) Incorporate Pop Culture

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.

2) Make it Relevant

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:

  •      The crops scientists developed to help us avoid world hunger.
  •      The development of vaccines.
  •      The invention of running water.
  •      The rise in antibiotics.
  •      The importance of satellites to help us see extreme weather coming.

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.

3) Get a Debate Going

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:

  •      Should we fear A.I.?
  •      Should animals be given human rights?
  •      Was development of the nuclear bomb worth it?
  •      Is technology changing how our brains work for better or worse?
  •      Should money be spent going into space or helping people here on earth?

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?

4) Bring in Guest Experts

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.

5) Let Student Passions Drive Their Assignments

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.


  1. Harshil Patel

    April 7, 2015 at 12:57 am

    Hello Kristen,

    This is most probably the best way to get the most out of the students and make them capable of grasping new concepts quickly. Thanks a lot for the post.

  2. Kristen Hicks

    April 7, 2015 at 2:11 pm

    Thanks for the comment, Harshil. Glad you liked it!

  3. Evelyn

    April 7, 2015 at 5:18 pm

    One huge problem with teaching science is that kids do not find it interesting. The five tips outlined here are a great start to generating interest in the STEM fields. An additional way to make STEM more interesting is to teach science as practice by challenging students to employ logical reasoning in addition to problem solving and using science learning as indoctrination (Lehrer & Schauble 2006). This method of teaching allows students to ascertain a deeper understanding of science. Many students have difficulty making connections between subjects with similar deep structures but disparate surface structures (Day & Goldstone 2012). Transfer is more difficult when comparing deep structures because students fail to recognize the common underlying themes. When students understand the deeper meaning behind concepts, they can more easily transfer information from one field to another. Teaching science as practice can aid transfer by facilitating a deeper understanding of scientific concepts. Another way to aid transfer is by providing examples of applications of the concept (Day & Goldstone 2012). The plan to incorporate pop culture and make it relevant is a wonderful way to promote transfer in the classroom. By incorporating pop culture into STEM learning, the teacher can show the fantastic and fictional applications of science and technology, showing how the fields relate to some of the students’ favorite movies and TV shows. By making it relevant, the teacher can expand on science and technology’s applications to the real world, revealing the realizations of abstract concepts. Although these steps are wonderful ways to spark interest in the topic, they will also help students understand the concepts more deeply.

    Something that this article has left unaddressed is the effect of stereotype threat on education. Stereotype threat is the idea that people fear that they will act in a way that will prove a negative stereotype about their social or ethnic group. For example, if a black student knows that black students tend to perform worse than white students on standardized tests, the black student will fear that he or she will perform poorly and confirm the bias (Steele & Aronson 1995). This mindset often results in poor performance, thus making the stereotype into a self-fulfilling prophecy. When it comes to STEM careers, white men make up the majority. Women and minorities have to fight the incorrect stereotype that their science and math performance is inferior to that of white men. The effects of stereotype threat can be almost completely undone by creating a feeling of social belonging (Walton et al. 2011). Bringing in successful STEM women and minorities is a fantastic idea because it will help students fight stereotype threat. These guest experts will demonstrate that minorities like them have been successful and therefore the aspiring students can achieve success as well!

  4. Kristen Hicks

    April 8, 2015 at 1:48 pm

    Thanks for adding to the conversation, Evelyn! While the piece doesn’t touch too much on it, one of the goals of the MIT videos mentioned in #4 is to help fight the stereotype threat that you describe. The series includes a lot of videos from women and people of color talking about their experiences with chemistry, so students can see how diverse the field can really be.

  5. jv salayo

    April 19, 2015 at 8:30 pm

    Hi Kristen. Thanks a lot for this post. I’m from the Philippines, but these ideas are also very relevant to Science and Math teachers here. I’ll be sharing these to teachers here. :-)