How to get STEM students to ‘poke the universe’ again

Schools, corporations attempt to spur interest in STEM through project-based learning

poke-STEMSteve Woodhead, manager of global social investment for Chevron, said the energy corporation is trying to address a big problem in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

“For 200 years people relied on farming, and so they knew how to farm,” Woodhead said to eSchool News during the U.S. News STEM Solutions conference last week.Now, people rely on technology, but so few seem to know anything about it.”

Chevron’s not the only major company attempting to address the so-called “STEM gap”–the idea that schools are not producing enough STEM-proficient students to fill the 2.1 million jobs that will exist in the sector by 2020. Also sponsoring the event were companies such as Shell, Boeing, and Chevy, which had parked two of its cars on either side of the main convention stage.

And a common plan among the sponsors, speakers, and panelists to close that gap is to toss out old-fashioned lectures, and replace them with project-based learning.

“You can’t just attract kids to STEM,” Woodhead said. “There has to be something for them when they get there. It’s not just about teachers emptying their brains into classrooms.”

(Next page: Why do students lose interest in STEM?)

For Chevron, this has meant establishing partnerships with organizations like Project Lead the Way and the Fab Foundation to bring pre-college STEM training to high school students.

A handful of students from Ohio were at the conference, showing off what they’ve learned so far in an on-site fabrication lab.

“I’ve really liked the emphasis on doing actual projects,” said Cory Gabel, a high school senior. “It does a great job of easing high school students like me into being first-year engineering students.”

Easing that transition is an important part of initiatives like Project Lead the Way, said Brian Iselin, an instructor for the program in Lorain County, Ohio.

Students often grow bored or frustrated with STEM classes, he said, because the material is dry and based around textbooks and exams. Iselin said the trick is taking those concepts and creating projects around them, something students don’t usually encounter until they’re in college–if they’ve managed to stick with STEM that long.

“Just seeing how this stuff is applied to the real world does so much,” he said. “That’s what makes the difference.”

At a panel discussion that same week, Jeff Goldstein, director of the Arthur C. Clarke Institute for Space Education, also criticized the way most STEM courses are taught in primary and secondary schools.

He pointed to how most people are born curious, but the way STEM topics are taught can dull that curiosity.

Schools need to find a way to more authentically recreate how researchers actually work, but do so in a classroom setting, he said. That could help reignite some students’ natural curiosity, which fades as they age.

“Babies love to poke the universe and see what happens,” Goldstein said.

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