Why don’t students choose STEM careers and courses? Mainly students say they are interested in the STEM field, but few go on to college and graduate with a STEM degree. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only those students who complete a college-level math course in their first year of college will stay with STEM.
This is a multi-faceted problem. First of all, many students shy away from difficult math courses, and math is the language of science, technology, and engineering. If students can’t speak the language of STEM, they will stay away from these courses. Secondly, school culture and peer pressure dissuade students from liking math and science. A third reason is that too often STEM courses are taught mainly theoretically, without hands-on application. In a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers at the University of Washington and the University of Maine, compared student outcomes in STEM courses that used traditional teaching strategies, such as lecture, versus STEM courses that contained group problem-solving. Students in the classes with group problem-solving scored six percent better on tests. Furthermore, almost a third of the students in the traditional classes either withdrew or got a D or F as a grade.
One high school that we visited in California with a successful STEM pathway had entering students take a summer class in math before entering the pathway. It was evident that this raised the level of their program and allowed them to introduce more advanced concepts. Other schools use peer tutoring, which utilizes students with more advanced knowledge to teach struggling students. This is a win-win for all. It is easy to understand that this benefits struggling students, but it also helps the more advanced students, as teaching a subject develops a deeper understanding.