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Getting Kids Hooked on STEM Subjects, Part 2

September 12, 2013


In Part 1 of this two-part series, I discussed why it’s important to get students involved in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects as early as possible. In this post I want to discuss some more ideas about how STEM education can be improved.


Claudia Dreifus asked 19 distinguished scientists, educators, and students, “If you could make one change to improve science education in the United States, what would it be?” [“Ideas for Improving Science Education,” New York Times, 2 September 2013] Carl E. Wieman, a Nobel laureate in physics, told Dreifus, he would “require that universities become more accountable about how they teach basic science and math to undergraduates.” The interesting thing about Wieman’s response is that he wasn’t really thinking about college students when he gave his answer. He was thinking about the students who would be taught by “this country’s future K-12 teachers” who are now receiving “a deficient understanding of the basic sciences” in their undergraduate classes. Wieman was also concerned about the quality of teaching. As noted in first segment of this series, many students don’t get involved in STEM subjects because they believe the subjects are either too boring or too hard. Wieman believes that better teachers could change that perception. He told Dreifus:

“Because of poor teaching, we’re giving [undergraduates] a very negative view of these subjects — negative in the sense that they see them as uninteresting, irrelevant and unnecessarily hard to learn. After they take the typical undergraduate basic-science courses, they have more negative feelings toward the subjects than they did before. The good news is that we know how to make introductory science courses engaging and effective. If you have classes where students get to think like scientists, discuss topics with each other and get frequent, targeted feedback, they do better. A key element involves instructors designing tasks where students witness real-world examples of how science works.”

Those same techniques can be applied as effectively in K-12 classrooms as they can in college classrooms to get students involved, interested, and, dare I say, excited about STEM subjects. Another educator who believes that STEM education should be problem-oriented is Mitzi Montoya, Dean of the College of Technology and Innovation at Arizona State University. She told Dreifus, “If I could change one thing about engineering education — well, actually, all education — it would be to center it around solving real problems and making things.” In previous posts about manufacturing, I’ve cited analysts who believe that because students no longer “make things” in school, they never consider jobs in manufacturing.


Michael F. Summers, a professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and another proponent of teaching problem-solving skills, believes that addressing real-world problems can help maintain student interest in STEM subjects as they transition from high school to college. He told Dreifus:

“There’s an unfortunate disconnect for kids who show some interest in science while in high school and their maintaining it while they are undergraduates at college. One of the ways we are addressing that is that we take about a dozen high school and college students into my lab each year, assign them an older mentor, train them in biochemical techniques and give them real problems to work on.”

Catherine L. Drennan, a Professor of chemistry and biology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told Dreifus that she believes too often STEM subjects are taught with a historical bent that makes it seem like “all discoveries are in the past and were made by dead white guys.” As a partial solution to this challenge, Drennan says that MIT has “made a series of short videos introducing real 21st-century chemists — young, old, white, nonwhite, male, female — who talk about what they do.”


Alan I. Leshner, Chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, is one proponent of STEM education who believes that you must start young. He told Dreifus, “K-12 students need to know the nature of science, how scientists work and the domains and limits of science.” He also believes you can’t teach what you don’t know. “You need teachers personally immersed in science. And to do that, you need to restructure the reward system for teachers so that K-12 teaching becomes a viable, respected career alternative for people trained in science.” Leshner also told Dreifus that “the educational community needs to exploit the scientific community’s desire to help. There are many, many retired scientists and engineers who’d love to go into the schools and use their knowledge and experience to assist the regular teachers.” I know that this is true from personal experience.


Freeman A. Hrabowski III, Mathematician; president, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, agrees with Dr. Wieman that education only really comes alive when it can be applied to real-world problems. He believes that teachers, as well as students, ought to be given the opportunity to apply their STEM abilities to real challenges. He told Dreifus:

“We need to create opportunities to excite students about how math and science connect to real life. Few teachers have opportunities to use their math skills outside the classroom. I would like to see more partnerships involving school systems, the corporate sector and government that provide teachers paid summer work opportunities applying their math skills to real-life problems. Right now, many students are bored in class, and they will ask the teacher, ‘When am I ever going to use this?’ If you say, ‘Geometry will teach you how to think well,’ it won’t mean much to a 16-year-old. But a teacher who has worked summers in green construction engineering can show their students how they’ve used geometric concepts.”

At a time when college graduates are straining to find jobs, demonstrating to high school students that STEM majors can obtain good paying jobs could be just that extra bit of encouragement they need. Elizabeth Blackburn, a Nobel laureate in medicine, believes that students who show an interest or proclivity in science should be immersed in science early in their educational careers. She told Dreifus:

“The way we teach it now, with an hour of instruction here and a laboratory class there, it doesn’t allow for what has been my experience: that immersion is the essence of scientific discovery. Science just isn’t something you can do in one-hour-and-a-half bits. Digging deep is what makes people actually productive. If I could change one thing, it would be to build this idea into the curriculum.”

Like many other scholars, Rita Colwell, the former director of the National Science Foundation, believes that STEM subjects need to be taught earlier and more effectively. She told Dreifus:

“I’d like to bring graduate students in science, engineering and mathematics into the elementary, middle and senior high schools to teach the science to these K-12 students. The purpose is to elevate the science taught in the K-12 schools by providing teachers who are knowledgeable of their science, engineering or mathematics and, most importantly, love their chosen professions.”

Steven Strogatz, a Professor of Mathematics at Cornell University, agrees with Colwell. He would like to “get real mathematicians who are math types to become math teachers. K-12 students need someone there with a real feel for the subject matter.”


John Matsui, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, believes, at the college level, “we are wasting a lot of human potential.” This is because most institutions of higher learning are designed to weed out the weak students “rather than educating anyone who’s demonstrated an interest and capacity.” Maria Klawe, President of Harvey Mudd College, told Dreifus, “I wish that STEM educators at whatever level would help all students understand that hard work and persistence are much more important to scientific success than natural ability.”


A Baltimore middle school principal, Najib Jammal, would like to see students “work in small groups more than they do now and get to apply their STEM learning to projects that benefit their community.” Deon Sanders, a fifth grader agrees with Jammal, he told Dreifus he would like to “science and math education to be more about life.” A high school senior, Dianne Marie Omire-Mayor, agrees that “more hands-on projects” are needed. Another high school senior, Naomi Mburu, told Dreifus that she wants to understand STEM subjects not just be required to memorize formulas. Paulo Blikstein, an education Professor at Stanford University, told Dreifus, “I’d love to see a once-a-week day in K-12 devoted to invention — an ‘Idea Day.” She continued:

“We want kids in school to have that experience of seeing how science and math lead to making things. In a controlled study conducted in our lab we found a statistically significant increase of 25 percent in performance when open-ended exploration came before text or video study rather than after it. We’d like kids to learn how to solve hard problems and what it takes to pull off a complex endeavor, how to plan, collaborate, fail and not give up. In other words, we want them to see what science and math can do when they are used by a creative mind.”

John Maeda, President of the Rhode Island School of Design, would like to see a merging of art and science. He told Dreifus:

“STEM teachers, especially in K-12, [need] to invite their art-teacher colleagues into their labs. At the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, they have artists all over there, and they are discovering that involving artists can improve their work radically. Great science is about thinking out of the box. And art is way out of the box, and having that kind of influence improves both sides.”

Salman Khan, Founder of Khan Academy, agrees with Maeda that too many creative students are turned away from the sciences into liberal arts. He told Dreifus:

“Despite the STEM subjects’ being about new ways of thinking and creating new things, many students don’t perceive them as creative. And that’s because, to a large degree, the type of filters we have for these subjects are actually filtering out our most creative people. If I had one wish in this area, it would be to see that creativity and invention became the central focus of STEM courses and that the traditional skills be viewed as what they are: tools to empower creativity. This means more of the students’ evaluation would be based on a portfolio of what they’ve done, as opposed to a score on a standardized test. This means more of class time would be devoted to exploring and inventing and less to lecturing and quiz-taking.”

To learn more about Salman Khan and his academy, read my post entitled Teaching Problem Solving Skills in Math and Science, Part 2. Because the Khan Academy is free and online, parents can learn along with their children. Mariette DiChristina, Editor in chief of Scientific American, believes this kind of parent/child interaction is essential. She told Dreifus, “We need to make it easy for families to have fun with science — to ask questions about how the world works, and to explore the answers together.”


Most Americans understand we have a crisis looming in STEM education. We can’t wait any longer to do something about it. It’s time to try some of the recommendations discussed above in today’s classrooms.

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