Spotlight on STEM Education

The past few years have seen educators, administrators, and curriculum planners working to get students interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) subjects. As the job market for these subjects grows, so too does the interest in preparing K-12 students to study them at a higher level.

John Dichiara, program manager, Corporate Social Responsibility for Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), is a former middle school science teacher now involved in getting students interested in STEM subjects through camps and other experiences. Dichiara spoke with School Planning & Management about getting students more deeply into technical subjects in ways that keep them motivated. 

Q. What are some of the most proven strategies to help foster a love of STEM subjects in lower grades?

Fostering a love of STEM starts with first breaking down misconceptions students often have around these fields (i.e. being a doctor doesn’t have to mean you deal with blood, and being a computer scientist doesn’t mean you write lines of code all day long).

STEM careers must feel engaging and accessible, in order for a student to believe they can or want to pursue a degree or career in any of these areas. The ability for a student to see themselves in a these fields is the most critical step toward engagement. This means exposure to more people that look like them—in STEM fields. Reading books with protagonists in STEM fields, watching movies where STEM professionals are celebrated, or even save the day, can be small ways to foster a love of the subjects, even outside of the classroom.

Q. Given the complexity of STEM disciplines at their highest level, how can teachers break complicated concepts down for younger students?

It’s important to foster student-driven exploration related to community-centered issues. Allowing students to work in teams to identify a problem and generate possible solutions helps them develop these computational thinking skills.

Q. How can you keep younger students interested in STEM subjects across years and especially summer breaks? Are there games, take-home-assignments, or other activities that can help?

When you think about your favorite subject in school, you often think about the subject you were the best at, or the one during which you were most proud of your efforts. Whichever the case, you associate your “favorite” with the subject you had some series of successes within. If we are good at something, we tend to like it more and if we are good at something often, we like it even more! Unless explicitly taught as a core class, students often have to go out of their way to be “tested” in some STEM activity (outside of math or science class, of course. Assuming science isn’t an elective—which is another issue in itself). There are many barriers limiting the number of, already limited, at-bats students get with STEM challenges: transportation, participation fees, knowledge the event is happening, etc.

This ultimately leads to a decreased likelihood that a student will feel confident and ultimately persist in the STEM fields. Engaging in internships or camp experiences, like TCS’s goIT Program, not only create more positive impressions with students around STEM but they also help to strengthen key character traits that future colleges and employers will be looking for.

All it takes is for a student to associate one positive experience with a STEM concept/activity to snowball into a passion for learning and the STEM fields. Our role as educators is to make sure the space between these positive STEM experiences is short enough to keep the momentum going.