Learning First Alliance

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How to Inspire Students in STEM: Use Out-Of-School Time?

obriena's picture

As promised, last week the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology released their strategy to improve STEM education in America’s elementary and secondary schools. It has two prongs, focusing on both preparing students (improving STEM education itself) and inspiring students so they are motivated to study STEM subjects and have careers in STEM fields in the future. The report divided recommendations into five general priorities for the federal government: improving federal coordination and leadership, supporting the state-led movement to establish a baseline for what students should learn in STEM courses, cultivating/recruiting/rewarding STEM teachers, creating STEM-related experiences that excite and interest students, and supporting the transformation of schools into STEM learning centers.

As I said last week, I was anxious to see the strategy proposed for motivating students in STEM. As a science and remedial math high school teacher in a low-income community, I found that getting students excited about STEM subjects was one of my biggest challenges. And if students weren’t excited, they were not going to learn it. Plain as that. I suggested that doing more to support project-based learning was one way in which the government could help schools increase that student interest.

But the report (now granted, despite my best intentions, I did not read each of the 130 pages closely), did surprisingly little to directly encourage that idea. It indirectly referenced it in calling for more teachers with the pedagogical skills most effective in STEM education: “cooperative, collaborative, active, and inquiry-based methods.” It also called for the federal government to support the development and dissemination of high-quality STEM teacher professional development programs, which I assume would include training in project-based learning.

The section on inspiring and motivating students offered two overarching suggestions: provide more out-of-class and extended day STEM activities to students, and ensure students have access to advanced STEM courses. Now, I am all for these recommendations. Except...I am surprised by the focus on out-of-class and extended day activities. Maybe I am misinterpreting "out-of-class" as "out-of-school," but in either case, why not recommend some of the specific activities suggested in this report--connecting mathematics with household activities, telling stories with animation technology, visiting museums and zoos, school-based mathematics contests and science fairs--be done during the school day, in class?

After all, this report specifies that opportunities to learn STEM outside of school are especially important for groups underrepresented in science and engineering, such as females, African-Americans and Hispanics. Yet both African-Americans and Hispanics tend to lack access to out-of-class and extended day activities (though it would be wonderful if that access were equalized). But also, and in my opinion more importantly, are students going to be interested in out-of-class activities related to STEM if they have not been excited about them first during the school day?

Recommending the out-of-class/extended day activities first just seems a bit like putting the cart before the horse. Don’t get me wrong--I definitely belive that there is a place for out-of-class and extended day activities, and especially for some of the activities recommended here (such as mentoring by STEM professionals and internships at STEM companies), I see the importance of focusing on that time as valuable in the endeavor to improve STEM education.

But I wish that the student section of the report had included more thoughts on how to improve student motivation in-class. Because no matter how stong our curriculum and assessments are, no matter how much content knowledge our teachers come with, and no matter how well we use technology to collect data to drive instruction, if we don't motivate students in-class, are outcomes ever going to really improve?