5 Tips for Engaging Students in STEM

By Anne Jolly

 

I never intended to be a teacher.  I took a “temporary” job as a middle school science teacher when I moved to a new city and no jobs were available in my virus research profession. By the end of that first year, I was in love. I fell in love with kids, classroom, and teaching.  I knew that I had found a new direction for my life – one that might involve a pay cut monetarily, but would pile on riches of another sort.

Since then, education has become my lifeblood and an all-consuming passion. Whether or not we do education right in this country matters.  It matters in whether our nation succeeds in being a viable 21st century player in the world arena.  Will we lead in technological innovation and change? Will our citizens have the knowledge and skills to power a rapidly changing workforce, adapt to the rate of change and come up with workable solutions for the problems that now face us?

They will if we educate them right. Take a look at our world and at what we need these students to be able to do. They need to succeed in building and maintaining a flourishing society. They need knowledge and skills to solve the problems that overwhelm us in the environmental, cultural, technological, and political arenas. How will we guarantee they are equipped to do this now and in the future?

I consider this a lot because my particular niche in the education world is STEM.  I believe deeply in the necessity of providing all students with a strong STEM background. That includes science technology, engineering, mathematics, the arts, and all other academics. The soft skills (the ability to interact effectively and agreeably with others) students learn as they engage in STEM lessons play a vital part in preparing kids for success.

So, if you’re entering the STEM world, you might want to take these things into account.

  • The way you teach and facilitate STEM learning is vital. We need to create authentic classrooms for today’s students. Check out a recent blog post by Steven Anderson (co-creator of #edchat) and Shaelynn Farnsworth, and examine 10 Characteristics of an Authentic-Based Learning Classroom. STEM classrooms need to break away from traditional practices and catch up with the world we are preparing our students for.

 

  • STEM subjects must be integrated. A colleague recently told me about a group of college students who were assigned to look at some malfunctioning wind turbines and suggest solutions. These students had the math and science background they needed but were unable to combine and apply these subjects to solve the problem. That’s not surprising since most schools were set up to teach subjects as totally separate bodies of knowledge. Education innovators call for abandoning subject area silos. Instead, teachers of all subjects would work together to help students understand how language arts, technology, science, mathematics, communication, engineering, and other subject areas interact in real life.

 

  • Art plays an important role in STEM. Art requires a special mention since it’s often the first program to be cut during a financial crisis; yet, art is one of the most valuable thinking tools we have. Do you want to explain something to students? Draw them a picture. Want the class to understand something? Sketch or illustrate it. Want to see what type of device teams might construct as a solution for a problem? Ask them to sketch the design. Want to market something? Apply art design principles and make it attractive. Feeling down? Listen to upbeat music. Need inspiration? Listen to a powerful symphony. Nothing we do in life is devoid of art. If it sounds like I’m getting off the STEM track in making this stand on behalf of arts in education, then let me put it this way. STEM cannot exist in a vacuum. STEM must exist within a forward-thinking 21st century curriculum – an inclusive curriculum that values the arts.

 

  • All kids need STEM opportunities. Disadvantaged students and minorities face battles on many fronts, and access to STEM classes should not be one of them. This SRI research study focusing on science classes revealed that all kinds of kids learn more with a well-designed, project-focused curriculum. That translates into STEM classwork as a primary way of improving learning for disadvantaged and minorities. As you design your STEM class, be sure that all kids have opportunities for real involvement and success.

 

  • Evaluate progress regularly. If you want your STEM classes to be effective, just keep asking (and answering) two questions: Is this STEM lesson working? How do I know? If you are fortunate enough to be working with a STEM professional learning community (PLC), you are in the best of all professional learning worlds. You have a way to plan, design, study and assess the impact of STEM on your students in collaboration with colleagues.

 

I’m glad I have a way to share my own story with other educators such as you.  And I hope you’ll go forward and teach STEM with a passion. It’s worth your time.

 

 

Anne Jolly is a STEM consultant, MiddleWeb blogger, and online community organizer for the Center for Teaching Quality. She began her career as a middle school science teacher in Mobile County Schools in Alabama and is a former Alabama State Teacher of the Year. Anne has recently co-developed nationally recognized STEM curriculum with support from the National Science Foundation. She writes for a variety of publications. Her most recent book, STEM by Design, is published by Routledge Press. Find her regularly on Twitter @ajollygal, on her blog at MiddleWeb, and on her STEM by Design website.

 

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