Science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) are not just important topics for school children—they are essential to our culture. These fields help the environment, revolutionize healthcare, innovate our country’s security, and ensure our global economic competitiveness.
According to the Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, the U.S. is not producing enough STEM undergraduate degrees to match the forecasted demand, creating a national workforce crisis. Fewer people pursuing STEM degrees means fewer scientists finding clever solutions to antibiotics resistance, fewer technophiles turning data into targeted healthcare, fewer engineers designing homes and buildings to withstand rising seas and powerful storms.
We must empower future generations with the tools and knowledge they will need to solve the global problems they will inherit, and that empowerment starts with education.
The Business Higher Education Foundation determined that, by the time students reach high school, 83 percent report lacking proficiency or interest in STEM. That statistic is staggering. Why are so many students disinterested in these fields by the time they reach high school?
Many factors contribute to this disinterest in STEM. Lingering perceptions that science pertains to only certain groups of people and that science is not cool discourage students from showing interest. Students have limited exposure to STEM professionals to serve as role models, particularly in the early school years when they are forming ideas about what they want to become. Schools often struggle with science faculty and materials shortages, lackluster lessons, and a shortage of time to dedicate to the investigative and iterative processes that define science and engineering. Early elementary school teachers may feel ill-prepared to teach STEM topics or may face demands to focus on other subjects.
Fortunately, children are natural learners—inquisitive, energetic, curious—and we can encourage their love of exploration and experimentation in elementary and middle school while our education system works to improve STEM education overall.
Here are some tips and resources to help expand science curricula and get children excited about learning.
1. Provide students with role models in the industry.
Young children observe everything and learn by mimicking people they look up to. Introduce students to role models that can inspire them to get excited about STEM, such as Elon Musk and Neil deGrasse Tyson. Some STEM celebrities, such as Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, post on social media and have written children’s books. Having students view podcasts and YouTube channels of rising STEM stars explaining STEM concepts can be a great way to introduce future scientists and engineers to some star power inspiration.
2. Make science exciting!
Create hands-on science lessons so concepts come to life. Pose challenges, such as designing structures to withstand beach erosion on a model seashore or building bridges or tunnel systems that consider constraints for wildlife migration. Take a different perspective on everyday items: analyze hair and fur samples, create maps that display multiple layers of data about your school or community, or identify trees by their leaves.
3. Provide training and support for teachers.
Help teachers feel comfortable teaching science-related activities by providing them the time and guidance to create and implement hands-on activities that use an inquiry-based approach to learning. Teachers do not need to know everything about a STEM topic to teach students how to use the core scientific and engineering practices to explore the topics.
4. Bring in outside support.
Programs are available to help schools integrate interactive science lessons into classrooms. Science from Scientists, for example, offers hands-on classes taught by real, charismatic scientists during the school day in Massachusetts, Minnesota, and California. When staffing is short or teacher experience in STEM is limited, using a STEM enrichment program to supplement regular curricula can be very helpful.
5. Get parents involved.
Let’s face it, teachers can only do so much in school. Encourage parents to see the science around us and explore nature with their kids. Families who encourage exploration and inspire children to be curious can have a monumental impact on their children’s future.
As a society, we must teach younger generations that STEM is cool and that STEM is all around us. Teaching STEM to young children may have its challenges, but as in science, challenges lead to new and better solutions.