One thing that many students say forces them to lose interest in STEM education is through a fear of failure. They fall behind in math or science, and as they watch their peers bound ahead, they begin to believe that these subjects are not for people like them. And while it is of course comforting to hear words from people like Vice President Joe Biden that everyone can succeed in STEM with the right foundation materials, it can be much harder to get students to actually believe this. This is because failure is penalized. Getting a question wrong means points counted off of a test. Answering incorrectly means being labelled as one of the less bright ones in class. Further, because so many of today's classes focus exclusively on success on standardized tests, students are brought up in an environment where knowledge is co-mingled with fear. But the future STEM workforce cannot be afraid of failure. Experiments fail all the time. Most research ends in a negative result. Failing is part of the discovery process. But the lecture-heavy, fact-based education that occurs in most classrooms does not facilitate this mentality. Instead, in an educational world where every question has a right and wrong answer, failure is on the losing side. Classrooms need to evolve into places where students can explore, try new things, and, yes, even fail. Failures can teach lessons in ways that success never can. But because of the current classroom model, this is often a tool that students do not have access to, causing those who feel like "failures" to abandon STEM for more prosperous pursuits.
Another big lost educational opportunity that students talk about is the lack of cooperative learning in many classrooms. In too many STEM classes, lectures go directly from teacher to student, and then the information goes from student to teacher via tests and other assignments. But rarely are STEM jobs so isolated. Instead, people are expected to work in teams to solve complex problems. Therefore, why are STEM classrooms not organized in this way? This peer-to-peer educational technology provides numerous benefits. First, it encourages collaboration and makes working together a core part of learning rather than a dreaded instance where those who have fallen behind cannot pull their own weight. Also, it allows students who have mastered content to serve as peer mentors to those who have not. Students can ask questions about what is confusing them in lower-risk situations that do not have as high of chance of causing embarrassment or focusing unwanted attention on a struggling student. Students can be inspired to pursue greater things in STEM by their teachers and other adults, but they can be equally inspired by their classmates who have an innate love of the subject matter. This sort of joy can be infectious, and all educators should be looking for more of these interactions in today's classrooms.
What does all of this mean? This is yet another sign that classrooms that are the most conducive for inspiring students to pursue STEM careers are not the most managed classrooms in the world. Students cannot learn to thrive in a rigidly controlled environment where failure is penalized and collaboration is discouraged. Instead, these educational options push against many of the ideas that have become cornerstones of modern education. Schools cannot test a student's inventiveness or creativity on a standardized test and a bubble-in form. Schools cannot encourage a student's drive with cookie cutter classroom content that fails to connect with the reality of a student's life. And schools cannot encourage collaborative thinking if the only relationships that are encouraged inside learning spaces are those between teacher and student. Adopting these new classroom models can be scary. Abandoning the over-reliance on testing means fewer statistics are available to judge student achievement and teacher efficacy. Abandoning rigid classrooms can lead to more active but also more tumultuous learning experiences. But if schools and educators are serious about keeping kids inside the STEM pipeline, then the traditional lecture format that provides information meant to be regurgitated on tests must be replaced by a new model that meets students where their interests lie. Without seeking input from students when making changes to STEM, all the focus groups and well-meaning education articles in the world will not help the United States address the coming STEM crisis.