How Can Educators Navigate the STEM Technology Desert?

By Frankie Wallace

STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) jobs are set to increase over the next year and likely beyond — demand has been growing for the past decade. Yet, there aren’t enough graduates pursuing STEM-related careers after graduation. Additionally, teachers who are skilled in these subjects and can teach them in a compelling way are few and far between.

STEM subjects are taught in schools everywhere, but students aren’t as excited about them as art, physical education, or theater (let alone lunch or recess). STEM classes are required, but electives and creative classes are what students get excited about. However, by approaching STEM education in a new way, teachers can show students just how thrilling STEM classes can be.

To start, they simply need to skim news headlines: From increasingly sophisticated AI finding its way into our classrooms to the possibility of insect droids pollinating Mars, what seemed like science fiction a decade ago is now reality. Technology of the future is all part of STEM, and giving learners a window into these developments is sure to spark interest.

But what can educators do once they’ve caught students’ interest? Let’s explore some ways we can improve STEM education in technology deserts.

Three Ideas for Better STEM Education

The best STEM lessons combine interesting, hands-on activities with computer-based learning. Without both components, students don’t get a well-rounded introduction to STEM. A common STEM lesson is the egg drop challenge. You’ve probably seen this in sitcoms, or maybe you’ve even designed one yourself. You have to build a vehicle that can keep a raw egg safe when dropped from a second story.

Thanks to technology, STEM lessons today can go far beyond this basic challenge (though it still may good to include in classes). Here are a couple lesson ideas:

  • Split students up into groups of four and have them compete in a design challenge. Assign them a specific task and then have them work together to plan, design, and build the solution. Lego Mindstorms makes a STEM education set for this type of lesson, combining hands-on design with computer science.
  • Hold a quiz competition similar to “Jeopardy.” This is even better is if you have the students design the game system. You can then populate it with questions.
  • Get your students involved in a robotics competition where they can compete against teams from other schools. Not only will students work together on a STEM project, but they’ll meet other students who share their interests. This may work especially well for introverts who feel left out of other types of school activities.

Teachers who evolve their lesson plans will prepare students for going into real world STEM fields. Adopting new technology into your classroom is and utilizing it to its full potential is a recipe for educational success — and doing so doesn’t even have to break the bank.

 

STEM Lessons Can Be Affordable

Despite the fact that STEM often includes new age technology, lessons and projects don’t have to be expensive. The Frederick Douglass Academy in Harlem proved this with their “hack-o’-lanterns,” a month-long project where students created modified pumpkins using what they learned about analogue and digital inputs. The pumpkins had features like flapping wings, eyes that lit up, and dancing components.

The technologies used were open source and inexpensive, which made it affordable for the school budget and allowed students to take projects home with them. Students worked with Arduino boards, which are programmable “mini computers” that can be designed for practically any purpose. The school found that the project kept students engaged even when they were home — emails would come in in the middle of the night or early in the morning as the kids continued working on their pumpkins.

Combine STEM Lessons With Other Subjects

Students who can’t seem to get interested in STEM may find lessons more interesting if they’re combined with other subjects. Using STEM teaching tools can improve your teaching dramatically by helping you bridge gaps between subjects.

  • Connect with the English teacher and have students create 3D floor plans for a home that’s featured in a book the English class is reading. This is particularly helpful for literature set in historical or futuristic settings, where students may struggle to visualize environments within the text.
  • Students who love their history class can use the Scratch app developed by MIT, to write their own games. Students can then present their app to the class to teach them about specific events or people.
  • Partner with the art teacher and ask students to design a robotic arm that can paint on its own. Students could also recreate famous paintings on their computers.
  • Gym classes can have students wear fitness trackers. The information collected can then be used in biology class to demonstrate about how physical activity affects the body.

It’s important for students to understand that STEM education isn’t relegated to just the science or math classroom. In order to encourage them to pursue highly relevant STEM fields, it needs to be tied to real-world issues. A perfect example of this is bioengineering and environmental engineering, given modern industry’s focus on sustainability. Students should be given a broad range of knowledge about the many different ways STEM is used today.

In practically all fields, understanding STEM concepts is a major help. For example, even working artists should have some concept of STEM in order to market their work or streamline their processes by using analytics and data collection. Students who live in rural communities may not have access to the same technology as those in more urban areas, but things like social media and video conferencing can still connect them with companies and other students to increase their learning potential.

 

Photo by Franck V. on Unsplash

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