A student leans his head against a math chalkboard in frustration due to low STEM engagement.

Got humor? It might be the key to STEM engagement

High school students' STEM engagement often wanes, but relevance and humor could help liven up learning

Real-world relevance and a little dash of humor are two ingredients that might increase STEM engagement and make learning fun for high school students, according to a new survey.

The Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM) surveyed 1,100 high school students from across the U.S. on how to increase student interest, understanding, and performance in math and STEM subjects. The study shows that almost 60 percent of responding students want teachers to be more creative in the classroom.

Related: How to get students interested in STEM

Those students say out-of-the-box teaching methods and fun science projects and competitions are two ways to increase STEM engagement and interest. Forty-nine percent of students say STEM learning should be more relevant to real life, and 35 percent think more technology in the classroom would help STEM seem more exciting.

About 32 percent say adding humor to STEM courses–through channels such as videos and projects–will do the trick.

The students queried for the survey are participants in this year’s MathWorks Math Modeling (M3) Challenge, a national internet-based contest organized by SIAM. Now in its 14th year, the competition involves thousands of high school juniors and seniors committing 14 consecutive hours on a designated weekend in March to come up with a solution to a real-world problem using mathematical modeling.

“If we consider standard tests as a benchmark, and national ACT math scores hitting a 20-year low in 2018, these findings provide useful insight about delivering STEM-related information to a generation of tech and social media-savvy students in a way that may not only increase their interest, but their skills and perseverance as well,” says Michelle Montgomery, M3 Challenge project director at SIAM.

Boosting STEM engagement in classrooms

The challenge isn’t unique to high school students. Nationwide, getting kids interested in STEM–and helping them retain that interest as they get older and as STEM subjects become more challenging or are deemed “uncool” by peers–is a struggle.

Searching for STEM grants is one way to find additional funding and resources to bring real-world relevance into the STEM classroom. These grants often involve competitions and projects that engage students and get them excited about STEM concepts.

Related: 10 major insights on teaching, learning, and STEM

Another way to inject relevance into STEM topics? Show students how vast STEM career possibilities actually are, and let them meet or video conference with STEM professionals in some of those exciting roles. This is especially important for girls and underrepresented groups, whose STEM engagement often wanes as they progress through school. If students don’t see themselves represented in STEM careers, they won’t pursue the academic paths leading to those careers.

Exposing students to STEM in early grades can help them retain their interest in and love of learning these topics. More than half of today’s adult workers (62 percent) say they were never exposed to STEM-related studies and career possibilities in elementary school, despite research indicating that early exposure to STEM courses helps students stick with these studies even as the material becomes more challenging in high school and college.

Laura Ascione

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