While other countries have made dramatic improvements in science and math education in recent years, the performance of U.S. students has remained relatively flat in these critical subjects. As a result, although American students used to lead the rest of the world in science and math achievement on international exams, U.S. 15-year-olds now rank seventh out of 37 developed countries in science literacy and 25th in math literacy.
This issue has important implications for our nation’s economic competitiveness. We need to engage more students in science, technology, engineering, and math early on in their education so that more of our best and most creative thinkers will pursue STEM-related careers later in life.
I was honored to be chosen by the National Math & Science Initiative as a DoD STEM Ambassador for the 2022-23 school year. As a STEM ambassador, I will work to advance opportunities for students who have been historically underrepresented in STEM. As I work towards my goals in this role, I want to offer strategies that schools can implement now to enhance STEM learning. Here are four critical strategies that school systems can use to achieve this goal:
1. Integrate science and technology at a young age
So much of the early grades focus on reading and math because these are the foundational skills for all academic learning to come. However, in focusing on these core subjects, early elementary educators often give short shrift to topics such as science and computing.
That’s a big mistake. It’s also a missed opportunity to engage younger students in STEM-related topics at a time when they’re most receptive. Students are naturally curious when they’re younger, and educators can leverage their curiosity to inspire a lifelong interest by introducing them to STEM-related subjects at a very early age.
2. Focus on critical skills
STEM excellence is as much about the skills and behaviors that scientists and engineers use in their daily work as it is about the content knowledge these subjects require.
Yes, students will need to learn advanced math if they want to become physicists or engineers. But they’ll also need skills and characteristics such as curiosity, innovative thinking, and complex problem-solving if they want to succeed in those fields. Educators must focus on cultivating these skills as well if they want to foster STEM excellence.
I was drawn to math and science because I loved solving problems. Those subjects weren’t just about regurgitating facts; instead, they involved an inquiry-based approach to learning that was much more interesting and engaging to me than rote memorization. Challenging students to solve authentic, real-world problems can spark their own interest while helping them develop essential STEM skills.
3. Make it fun
Learning the skills required in STEM disciplines doesn’t have to happen only in a rigorous academic context. For instance, playing board or video games is a great way for students to learn skills such as problem-solving, creativity, and critical thinking. In fact, I am in the process of writing a proposal for grant funding to start a gaming club at my school.
My wife, who teaches elementary school, has introduced students to science by making ice cream. Those kinds of lessons stick with students for life and make STEM learning fun and engaging.
4. Make it inclusive
Many schools offer STEM-related subjects such as coding or robotics as afterschool clubs or activities for gifted and talented students. But limiting these opportunities to a select group of students isn’t fair or equitable.
All students deserve these learning opportunities, not just those who are fortunate enough to be able to attend after-school clubs or gifted programs. When we include these opportunities in the general curriculum, then everyone has a chance to participate.
With the rapid pace of technological change and the many global challenges that require solving, we need as many students as possible to become innovative problem solvers and STEM thinkers. With the help of these four strategies, school systems can develop a STEM interest and mindset among students that will serve them well in whatever field they choose.