College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

Winning the STEM Race Means Boosting Interest

May 29, 2018 6 min read

Editor’s Note: How do we engage students in STEM learning? Rebecca Bell Meszaros, Associate Vice President of Education at IREX, a global development and education nonprofit, shares how virtual project-based learning can help.

By guest blogger Rebecca Bell Meszaros

America is woefully behind the rest of the world in preparing workers for the jobs of today and tomorrow. An estimated 3 million jobs are unfilled in America because not enough workers have the necessary STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) skills to do them.

While economists, educators, and policymakers have attempted to increase teaching and training in STEM to meet this demand, one problem has gone largely unaddressed: boosting student interest in STEM. Teach math and science all you want, but if students don’t get excited about pursuing careers in STEM, it’s wasted effort.

This skills gap in STEM will only widen in the future as automation continues to displace workers who drive cars, bag groceries, or work on the factory floor. It’s imperative that we build a healthy pipeline of workers educated in STEM who not only can run these machines, but who can also innovate and create solutions to urgent national and international problems.

Policymakers and school administrators have, admirably, made great strides in promoting STEM instruction. The landmark Every Student Succeeds Act, which will influence education across the US for years to come, makes new resources for STEM available to states.

But sitting through a boring science or math class does not a scientist or mathematician make. Students must develop a passion for these subjects if they are going to enter these fields. Right now, instruction is not sparking passion. Only 16 percent of high school students are proficient in math and express interest in STEM fields.

Boosting Student STEM Success Through Virtual Project-Based Learning

How do we make STEM fun and more relevant to students? One promising—and scalable—solution: virtual project-based learning.

Project-based learning requires students to apply what they learn in the classroom to a real-world challenge, giving tangible meaning to abstract equations. These kinds of initiatives significantly increase interest in pursuing STEM careers, especially for women, minorities, and children from low-income families.

Programs such as MIT InvenTeams and Project Lead the Way are project-based learning programs that provide in-depth, in-person STEM innovation challenges for students. U.S. youth and educators participating in InvenTeams work as teams to create real-world solutions to problems affecting communities and countries. Project Lead the Way provides hands-on STEM learning and teacher training to engage students in authentic problem solving.

Our program, World Smarts, is a virtual STEM challenge that pairs high school students in the US and another country on collaborative teams in a competition to create innovative STEM solutions to pressing global problems. The bi-national nature of the program enriches the experience and mirrors today’s reality as technology and engineering teams are increasingly from multiple countries. (More than half of IBM’s workforce, for example, is outside the US.) The winning team receives seed funding to market their STEM solution to investors to further prototype and pilot their idea.

Tips to Get Started

Through collaboration with colleagues and experience with virtual project-based learning here are five tips for raising student enthusiasm for STEM careers.

1. Solve a global or local real-world problem!

When students are solving real-world problems in their community and world, they are engaged in authentic learning and curiosity. It also provides a unique opportunity for students from different cultures to learn how global issues, such as energy use, manifest in local contexts. This builds empathy and community among students.

2. Combine in-person and virtual experiences (aka: a blended online-learning model).

Few people are at their best staring a computer screen all day. By combining in-person and online collaboration, as well as research and innovation, students gain valuable teamwork experience and motivation from national and international peers. It’s important that students become equipped with the flexibility and resilience to work together in person and virtually. Skills for virtual and cross-cultural teamwork should be differentiated from in-person collaboration.

3. Infuse cultural-competency development.

Cultural competency is vital in today’s workforce where employees are collaborating across cultures domestically and internationally. Design curriculum that is intentionally inclusive in pedagogy and access levels. By supporting students with strategies and activities where they are learning about each other’s cultures, sharing stories from their own lives, and practicing real-world communication techniques, we are setting them up for success in their academic and professional lives.

4. Investigate the world around you.

Students should utilize the environment around them to motivate their curiosity and learn about the way local issues are impacting their global community. This can include partnering with local experts in the field, NGOs and government organizations, community mapping, and more. Completing authentic field work and sharing it through virtual global collaboration will bring depth of experience to project-based learning.

5. Prepare for different levels of virtual access.

To support authentic diversity and improve access for students from different resource levels, be prepared to support with differentiated internet access tools and strategies. Some students might lack literal virtual access and need support through a virtual modem, while others might need support with building perseverance and problem solving in virtual exchange. For example, if Skype doesn’t connect, try recording short asynchronous videos or connecting through email or chat.

While initiatives like World Smarts show promise in raising student interest in STEM, some critics may raise a frequent refrain: Project-based learning is time and resource intensive, making it difficult for large numbers of students to participate.

That is a penny-wise and pound-foolish view of how to build a productive workforce. Indeed, it takes serious investment of time and resources to effectively train workers to apply classroom learning to real-world problems. But it effectively pays off on the back end when youth workers successfully perform more productive jobs.

In addition, by using virtual platforms, these kinds of initiatives can be offered to students across the country—and the globe—at lower cost. And using a contest model with the promise of seed funding is an excellent way to motivate participation by students and schools at low cost.

Access to STEM classes is only one part of the equation. Without boosting student interest in STEM careers these efforts will not solve America’s shortage of STEM talent. Contests and project-based learning initiatives can make these subjects tangible and exciting—and ignite the next generation of ingenuity.

Connect with IREX and Center for Global Education on Twitter.

Quote image created on Pablo.

Photo Credit: Eleanor Roosevelt High School World Smarts Team

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.


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