In 2007, a research commission led by the Carnegie Foundation concluded that a strong educational foundation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) is one of the most important factors in ensuring America’s lasting competitiveness in the global economy. However, numerous studies have since demonstrated that the United States is experiencing a noticeable gap in STEM skills and employment. As technological innovation and scientific research progress at unprecedented speeds, future generations must be prepared with the proper skills, motivation, and perspective to continue carrying the world forward.
One of the best ways to develop a skilled and enthusiastic STEM workforce is to inspire a lifelong appreciation for STEM topics. All students receive basic classroom instruction in topics including math, science, and technology, but if teachers and caretakers make an effort to engage students with these subjects in an active and creative way, they can inspire students to take their love of STEM outside of the classroom.
STEM education forms one of the cornerstones of the Phillips Charitable Organizations mission. In recent years, the nonprofit has provided a number of grants to help aspiring engineers pursue higher education. But how can adults encourage more students to take an interest in STEM without compromising their existing interests? The following are tips for encouraging youth engagement in STEM and, in the process, inspiring a lifelong passion for math, science, engineering, and technology:
Let It Occur Naturally
Many students have preconceived notions about STEM subjects—e.g., they’re difficult, uninteresting, or inaccessible—and this can lead some students to avoid exploring them fully. However, by gradually introducing students to STEM concepts through fun, hands-on experiences, parents and teachers can help encourage a natural interest in the concepts while demonstrating their relevance to the wider world. Allowing students time to explore science and math unrestrained by a classroom setting or formal instruction may help them develop a broader perspective of STEM. Such self-guided exploration can demonstrate the sheer variety of fundamental concepts and real-world applications tied to STEM, helping students view STEM as a variety of paths to explore rather than a single subject area to be loved or hated.
Relate STEM to Daily Life
One of the best ways to illustrate the importance of STEM to young students is to highlight its relevance to everyday activities. For example, kids who enjoy helping out in the kitchen have numerous opportunities to learn about food science and its underlying chemistry, from the phases of matter associated with boiling water to the impact melted butter can have when baking cookies. Students with an interest in music might be surprised to learn about the mathematical basis for music theory, while those with an enthusiasm for cars have a natural jumping-off point for basic lessons in physics. Sports also present numerous opportunities for youth to learn about math and physics, and even artistic pursuits such as fashion design can bear a relevance to STEM topics, as evidenced by the LED-light dress template found on Google’s Made with Code learning platform.
Even helping out around the house can provide a valuable STEM learning experience; for example, by asking a child to help set up a new piece of technology by first reading the manual, parents can provide a worthwhile lesson on a new digital tool and the processes of deduction and critical thinking. Entertainment can also be enriching; parents should make an effort to seek out television shows and documentaries that will allow their children to delve further into topics such as science and technology, encouraging them to make inferences from the material and ask further questions.
Focus on the Experience
Formal lesson plans and multiple-choice exams can wait. Instead, allow children to develop a natural affinity for STEM topics through experiential learning opportunities. By actively seeking opportunities to tie STEM subjects to daily life, both parents and teachers can create exciting informal lessons that allow children to take an active role in their education.
The most popular opportunities for hands-on STEM lessons are often science projects; activities such as creating “slime,” building a baking soda volcano, or coding a simple game allow students to acquire new knowledge while enjoying the accomplishment of creating something on their own. In the classroom, collaborative learning opportunities can provide another effective gateway to STEM. By assigning each student to study and share their findings on series of specific dinosaur species, for example, teachers can place students at the helm of the learning experience, allowing them to develop an interest in the information by exploring it on their own and relaying it to others.
Numerous opportunities for STEM education lie outside of the home and classroom. Trips to locations such as zoos, museums, or simply the great outdoors are likely to spark kids’ curiosity while allowing them to freely explore the world around them. An introduction to STEM topics via experiences can help kids learn to draw connections between multiple concepts across disciplines, ask intelligent questions, hone their investigative skills, and develop a greater sense of curiosity.
When seeking to encourage enthusiasm for STEM studies, parents and teachers should first focus on inspiring a genuine excitement for these topics. By emphasizing interest over aptitude, adults can illustrate the value of the learning process itself and help students adopt a more constructive view of education. There is no doubt that modern society highly values academic achievement, and this may dissuade students from pursuing subjects that they may not excel in. However, by choosing to explore new topics in spite of this anxiety, students can learn the value of trying new things and persevering through challenges.
Psychology experts such as Carol Dweck, a professor at Stanford University, have noted that the tendency to praise ability or intelligence can be detrimental to self-esteem when not paired with equal praise for effort. Instead of focusing on the outcome of a student’s science project or his or her success in mastering a new coding concept, parents and teachers should strive to celebrate the hard work, dedication, and innovative thinking inherent to these pursuits. By helping youth realize the value in pushing their limits and learning from their mistakes, adults can help students develop a mindset that will lead to success not only in early STEM education, but also throughout their lives.