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Getting Students Excited about STEM Education by Getting Them Involved

August 5, 2016


“In a positive sign for efforts to boost U.S. competitiveness in science and technology,” a University of Texas at Austin press release reports, “a new study finds that courses that engage college students in conducting scientific research early on can dramatically increase students’ odds of completing a science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) degree.”[1] My question is: Why wait until college to dramatically increase students’ odds of completing a science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) degree? I believe students should be getting hands-on STEM education training from the very beginning. That’s one of the reasons I, along with a few colleagues, founded The Project for STEM Competitiveness — to help keep children both enthralled and engaged in subjects that have traditionally been hotspots of discouragement. The UT Austin press release notes that the study “found that across all demographic groups students who participated in a program called the Freshman Research Initiative were more likely to graduate college and to earn degrees in STEM disciplines at The University of Texas at Austin.” We can do better as a country if we provide a good STEM education background for all of our children. The press release continues:

“According to a 2012 report from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, the U.S. needs to produce approximately 1 million more STEM professionals during the next decade than is currently projected, yet ‘fewer than 40 percent of students who enter college intending to major in a STEM field complete a STEM degree.’ The report indicated that boosting retention of STEM majors to 50 percent nationwide would provide three-fourths of the needed increase in STEM workers, and it suggested that improving science education with more hands-on research opportunities would be a good strategy.”

Tom Vander Ark (@tvanderark), CEO of Getting Smart, points out there is a difference between adding a few activities into classroom curricula and adopting a project-based curricula. “A project,” he writes, “is a multistep activity undertaken by an individual or group to achieve a particular aim. With that broad definition there’s a lot of project-based learning happening in schools these days. Some is better than others and there are a lot of variations: some thin, some deep; some teacher-led, some student-driven; some with clear deliverables, and some very open ended.”[2] Vander Ark reports, “[The] Buck Institute for Education (BIE) defines project-based learning as ‘a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an engaging and complex question, problem or challenge.'” He then lists BIE’s gold standards for project-based learning. They include:

  • Key Knowledge, Understanding and Success Skills. The project is focused on student learning goals, including standards-based content and skills such as critical thinking/problem solving, collaboration and self-management.
  • Challenging Problem or Question. The project is framed by a meaningful problem to solve or a question to answer, at the appropriate level of challenge.
  • Sustained Inquiry. Students engage in a rigorous, extended process of asking questions, finding resources and applying information.
  • Authenticity. The project features real-world context, tasks and tools, quality standards or impact. Or it speaks to students’ personal concerns, interests and issues in their lives.
  • Student Voice & Choice. Students make some decisions about the project, including how they work and what they create.
  • Reflection. Students and teachers reflect on learning, the effectiveness of their inquiry and project activities, the quality of student work, obstacles and how to overcome them.
  • Critique & Revision. Students give, receive and use feedback to improve their process and products.
  • Public Product. Students make their project work public by explaining, displaying and/or presenting it to people beyond the classroom.

I agree with Vander Ark when he writes, “That is a good and useful set of design principles.” It takes little imagination to see how those principles can help students really learn their subjects, develop problem-solving skills, and gain self-esteem as an added bonus. Loretta Goodwin, a Senior Director at the American Youth Policy Forum, believes that a good project-based learning experience includes three key factors: passion, collaboration and community.[3] In another article, Vander Ark writes, “It’s easy to do project-based learning, it’s just hard to do it well.”[4] He continues:

“Project-based learning is a great way to engage students, to encourage collaboration and creativity, and to promote authentic work and assessment. But it’s hard to:

  • set a high bar for high quality project deliverables;
  • assess projects objectively especially when they’re all different;
  • help students with low level skills engage in challenging projects;
  • mitigate the free rider problem of loafing team members;
  • provide enough but not too much formative feedback and support; and
  • avoid big knowledge gaps resulting from a string of projects.

A new generation of schools are blending the best of personalized learning and project-based learning to address these challenges. They value deeper learning and development of success skills (growth mindset and social emotional learning) and track competency in all outcome areas. They use a variety of grouping and scheduling strategies to offer a rich and varied learning experience. They provide customized supports to build individualized skill fluency to allow students with learning gaps to fully engage in challenging projects.”

One of the movements sweeping America is the Maker Movement, which encourages project-based learning. John B. King Jr., U.S. Secretary of Education, explains, “‘Making’ can play an important role in ensuring that school is a relevant and engaging experience for our children — one that inspires them to become life-long learners.”[5] King continues:

“Making can:

  • Empower students to solve real-world problems;
  • Motivate and inspire young people to excel in science, technology, engineering, math (STEM) and the arts, and prepare students for careers in design, advanced manufacturing and entrepreneurship;
  • Foster a ‘maker mindset’ — dispositions and skills such as curiosity, collaborative problem-solving and confidence that are vital to the modern innovation economy; and
  • Increase student engagement, which is critical for academic success. The High School Survey of Student Engagement found that two-thirds of students surveyed said they were bored in school every day. Researchers over many years have found that when students learn through doing, they are more likely to be excited about school.
  • In 2011, a team of 15 teens from a low-income school in West Philadelphia showed what’s possible when our young people are challenged to solve real-world problems. The team built a 160 mpg hybrid vehicle that has outperformed fuel-efficient cars created by professional engineers and Ivy League graduate students and entered it in the $10 million Automotive X Prize. In a city where over 50 percent of the students drop out, every single member of the team graduated.

… Now we need to support the next generation of innovators and work to ensure that all have opportunities to learn how to design, invent and fabricate just about anything.”

If we want to remain competitive in the world, we need to raise future generations who love to learn, are fully engaged, and know how to solve problems and think critically. The sooner we start them on that path the better they will be and the better the country will be.


[1] University of Texas at Austin, “Hands-on science courses shown to boost graduation rates and STEM retention,” EurekAlert!, 1 June 2016.
[2] Tom Vander Ark, “Is it a Project or an Activity? Project-Based Learning and its Cousins,” Education Week, 23 June 2016.
[3] Loretta Goodwin, “3 Elements of Deeper Project-Based Learning,” Getting Smart, 8 June 2016.
[4] Tom Vander Ark, “What’s Next? Personalized, Project-Based Learning,” Getting Smart, 18 May 2016.
[5] John B. King Jr., “Building a Nation of Makers,” U.S. News & World Report, 20 June 2016.

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