However, engaging students in STEM can be trickier than some other fields. For instance, to engage a student with reading, all that teachers have to do is find stories that appeal to the student. Books (and stories in all formats) remain portable and cheap. Science experiments, on the other hand, can be a little bit more cumbersome to do in already-full school days on already-overtaxed budgets. Throughout the country, though, there are schools and organizations that are taking the extra steps necessary to engage students in STEM to ensure that their interest does not wane with time and that they remain in the STEM pipeline.
One way in which STEM is consistently being brought into schools is through after school enrichment programs. Saranc High School in Michigan recently introduced a robotics club to expose their students to higher end technology that most students do not typically interact with. This club and others like it allow students to interact with each other to develop critical thinking and problem solving skills in a STEM context. It further allies them with educators who are involved in administering the program, and it allows them to form connections with community mentors that can provide valuable insight into the STEM workforce. After school events like this help to strengthen interest that is already present by giving students a practical outlet for their love of STEM subjects. By giving them hands-on experience in both demonstrations and competitions, it can help strengthen STEM skills while also helping students internalize the idea that STEM education is a vital part of their self-identity. When students believe that they are the kind of students who are good at science or that they live for engineering, this can have a powerful effect on their future educational and career choices.
After school programs cannot be the only time in students' educational lives when STEM is presented. Some student cannot stay after school and others are not inclined to join organizations like a robotics, technology or math clubs. Luckily, there are programs that will bring STEM enrichment directly into schools. One example is the STARBASE program at Liberty Drive Elementary in Thomasville, North Carolina. This program takes students in the fifth grade and gives them four solid days of grounding in hands-on science activities. These curriculum-based activities teach students about the phases of matter, the dangers of illicit substances and the proper way to conduct experiments. Administered by the Air and Navy National Guards in North Carolina, these opportunities allow students to interact directly with the content that they have learned in more traditional classroom settings. However, because the program sets aside special days for hands-on experimentation, it provides a valuable psychological effect for younger students: it makes them look forward to it. Any person that has ever worked with elementary students knows that they are not shy about the things that they like. Thus, by having a build up to events that have a STEM focus, students learn that STEM can be exciting, engaging and special. For younger kids especially, this can have a positive impact on keeping them engaged and in the STEM pipeline.
Lastly, it's important for schools to continue partnerships with organizations that host STEM events outside of school hours and off school grounds. Although not technically part of the classroom, an argument can be made that these sorts of events are extensions of the classroom that give further opportunities for students to engage in hands-on learning. Expositions that expose students to 3D printing, robotics, advanced engineering, high tech tools and other STEM advancements can only help in increasing their overall engagement and keeping them on-track for STEM success.
STEM cannot be confined to desks and a lecture. Because learning, discovery and experimentation are active processes, students have to be engaged to stay passionate about them. By providing more hands-on opportunities both in-school and out, students will be more likely to maintain their place in the STEM pipeline and tomorrow's STEM workforce.