How Interest in STEM Education Gets Crushed
When I was younger I remember being asked what my favorite subject in school was, as people often do with elementary school children. And my answer back then was usually math or science because those classes were fun to me. But somewhere along the line that changed from science to English, because a.) I was better at it, and b.) science and math were no longer fun to me. As I’ve mentioned before, I was a pretty good student in grade school and usually made good grades in every subject, but only because I felt like I had to. Even though I didn’t like them, I still felt the need to work hard in science and math classes because I knew they were important subjects.
My upbringing allowed me plenty of opportunities to explore STEM related fields both inside and outside of the classroom, and I certainly enjoyed having my nerdy summer camp experiences that emphasized learning.
So why did my STEM education go from being the most fun I had in school to becoming like mandatory chore work?
Part of the answer has to do with a changing school environment. My elementary and middle schools were on the smaller side, and thus allowed more individualized student-teacher time, and a more intimate learning environment for each class. We all know that smaller classes are more conducive to learning since it allows for better focus for both teachers and students. But once I got to high school, the classes got bigger and a little more impersonal. By no fault of (most of) my teachers, I became less interested in trying to understand higher concept science and math because there simply wasn’t enough time in the day to give every child enough attention, or find ways to relate the subject matter to life. It was that age-old student complaint, “when will I need this in the real world?”
The bigger explanation has to do with my own change in interests as I grew up, shifting from science to English and theatre, which happens with many people all the time. But with English and theater studies, it became a different approach to learning the subject matter that was more effective in keeping my interests. What English studies allow is for students to form opinions, have his/her opinions heard, and provide feedback that facilitates discussion. Those discussions tend to come from real-life experiences, thus keeping the subject matter more personal for each student and keeping them more engaged. Whereas in my science and math classes, the emphasis was only placed on whether or not you got the concepts enough to pass the tests (another common problem with education as a whole).
Of course, this is just my own experience, as there were plenty of other students in my class that felt differently and pursued higher education in STEM subjects. I know of people who liked math better than English because of a reading disability, or because they didn’t like how open-ended literature discussions were, or because science and math were simply more interesting to them. There will continue to be these differences in student interests, regardless of how much the need for more students studying math and science, and that’s okay too.
But when I see all the resources and learning methods available now, I get a little jealous of modern-day students. I often find myself looking up things on my own, like how genotyping works, or what string theory is all about, or why the Higgs-Boson was so important, even though my life has little to do with those subjects. But because I had just a tiny bit of my interest peaked from hearing about these things in everyday life I can choose to act on my curiosity, and have nearly unlimited resources at every level (from explanations for kids to college lectures) to satisfy my learning bug.
So I think that more than just sparking interest in younger children in STEM subjects, maintaining that same level of inspiration throughout their lives is also important in creating a larger pool of STEM students for the future.