Science Opinion

How to Engage All Students in STEM

By Heather Singmaster — July 09, 2019 7 min read
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Early in their school careers, students see STEM pathways as desirable but then change their minds: 60percent of high school students who start out interested in STEM careers lose interest by their senior year. And too many of those who are interested do not have the skills that are needed: A study by the Business-Higher Education Forum found that only 17 percent of high school students are both interested in STEM and proficient enough in math to succeed. Meanwhile, half of college students majoring in STEM drop out and change majors—many because they were not prepared in high school for the rigor of first-year STEM courses. Others change paths because they are not engaged in the curriculum, which seems irrelevant —this is true at both the undergraduate and high school levels. One solution is high-quality project-based learning (PBL), which is already being deployed in career and technical education (CTE) programs across the country. But free resources make this strategy accessible to all teachers focused on STEM learning.

CTE: An Example of How to Close the STEM Gap

Career and technical education programs more deeply engage students in their coursework as shown by the fact that students who concentrate in CTE have a high school graduation rate of 90 percent—much higher than the national average. CTE pathways already prepare students for the rigors of STEM careers by giving them foundational skills and allowing for a broader interpretation of STEM—not just as a pathway for engineers as it is often defined. Brookings Institution examined the specific STEM skills being listed in job postings today. The findings support the fact that STEM skills are required in a huge swath of jobs&mash;from administrative jobs requiring statistical knowledge to plumbers, doctors, and accountants. These pathways and more are taught through CTE programs and include STEM skills and curriculum. The best CTE programs utilize active, hands-on project-based learning coupled with academic knowledge and employability skills. High-quality projects focus on work that real professionals do, allowing students to engage with STEM content and persist in these pathways.

Engaging Students Through Interdisciplinary, Global, Project-Based Learning

A hands-on, problem-solving pedagogical approach, like that utilized in many CTE classrooms, not only engages students in STEM learning, it also gives them the 21st-century skills needed for success. As we look to a future that holds many unknown challenges and unknown careers, narrow training in technical skills is not going to be enough. An op-ed by MIT for the Boston Globe stated, “Our graduates naturally need advanced technical knowledge and skills ... [and also] our students learn how individuals, organizations, and nations act on their desires and concerns. They gain historical and cultural perspectives, and critical-thinking skills that help them collaborate with people across the globe, as well as communication skills that enable them to listen, explain, and inspire” (emphasis added). A paper by the New York Academy of Sciences found that there is too much rote learning and memorization in STEM education programs, leaving graduates without the soft skills that allow them to be employable.

Critical here is the need for a global perspective in STEM-related fields. Scientists and engineers regularly work in multinational teams to research critical global challenges. As online commerce platforms serve international customers, technology interfaces must address differing cultural norms. Medical professionals must work with people from diverse backgrounds or understand how cultural practices may contribute to the spread of disease. In fact, no matter what industry one is working in, being able to communicate and function in a team with people from different backgrounds is critical: 1 in 10 Americans is foreign born and as of 2014, in U.S. schools, there is a majority-minority population (students of color now outnumber white students). This makes it imperative that teachers are teaching for global competence, that is the capacity and disposition to understand and act on issues of global significance.

In 2016, the U.S. Department of Education issued “STEM 2026: A Vision for Innovation in STEM Education,” which laid out a plan to create a pipeline for STEM from P-16 and beyond. One of the six components is to encourage interdisciplinary projects on “grand challenges,” such as water conservation or solar energy, at the local, national, or global level. These challenges help students to see the relevance of STEM for themselves and others and also to allow for “culturally relevant” teaching. The Next Generation Science Standards align to this vision, focusing on action in science education and requiring a hands-on approach that allows students to analyze, think, discover, debate, and work collaboratively.

Need for Professional Development and Curriculum

In order to get from our current state and make a more engaged, relevant, hands-on STEM education a reality, a growing number of leaders have pointed out that more resources for curriculum and professional development are required. 100Kin10, a group of higher education institutions, nonprofits, foundations, companies, and government agencies, researched the 100 challenges facing STEM in order to formulate a road map for action and found that many teachers are not prepared to teach STEM subjects using active learning activities or through inclusion of 21st-century skills. They are also not prepared to teach students from diverse backgrounds and lack culturally relevant curricula and resources. This need is acute in high-poverty schools, which have less access to hands-on, real-world, science activities than students at low-poverty schools, according to Change the Equation, a coalition of businesses working to change STEM education. They, too, highlight the need to give teachers better training to help them facilitate this kind of learning and meet the Next Generation Science Standards.


To address this need, an ever-growing number of local, state, and national education reform strategies specifically include STEM, and a majority of states are coupling this with CTE. Simultaneously, state and local leaders also recognize the importance of improving CTE offerings to ensure all are of the highest quality and align to local workforce needs.

While states and districts work to improve their offerings, educators have access to an ever-growing number of free resources, including professional development, curriculum, and success stories, all aimed at helping them engage students in content through project-based learning. Here are just a few:

Career Readiness in a Global Economy: STEM and CTE
The Center for Global Education at Asia Society has partnered with ACTE and Advance CTE to create 10 new online, 15-minute modules to help educators understand how to make global connections to local STEM issues; create high-quality global STEM projects; assess global workforce-readiness skills; connect with classrooms abroad to complete collaborative projects; and teach students to be project managers so they are more successful in completing their projects. The modules, together with sample curriculum and other tools and resources, are available completely free of charge.

This site from the George Lucas Educational Foundation offers many free PBL resources including a variety of videos, reports, best-practice documents, presentations, and podcasts. To find them, search for PBL or project-based learning. A search for STEM will yield examples of strategies to engage all students in STEM learning.

HQPBL Framework
High Quality Project Based Learning (HQPBL) is a consortium of organizations that, based on research, have defined what a high-quality project-based-learning experience should look like. The HQPBL Framework helps teachers demonstrate deeper learning outcomes as they design PBL experiences. Project examples from around the world are also available.

NAE Grand Challenges for Engineering
The National Academy of Engineering surveyed some of the leading technological thinkers of our time on the largest challenges facing the field of engineering. Their list—which falls into the four categories of health, joy of living, security, and sustainability—includes 14 global topics perfect for engaging classroom projects.

Formerly known as Buck Institute, PBLWorks provides an entire website of free resources on why PBL is important, how it can engage all students, and strategies for integrating it into classrooms. The section on success stories provides examples from districts, schools, leaders, and teachers on successful implementation of PBL.

Spark101 provides free video-based STEM challenges and accompanying curriculum for classrooms. Each video features interviews with different professionals, helping students understand the wide array of careers available across STEM fields.

These tools (and the many others available online) will help teachers to engage students in STEM early, through culturally relevant, real-world PBL experiences.This will not only prepare students for life and work in our interconnected world but will also lead to increased persistence in STEM fields, helping to meet the acute—and ever increasing—shortage of workers.

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The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.