Sparking Curiosity In STEM, In And Outside The Classroom

Sparking Curiosity In STEM, In And Outside The Classroom
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On a recent trip to St. Louis Public Schools, I had the opportunity to spend time with a group of students who were either rising seniors or matriculating college freshman. Many of these kids are students of color or the first in their family to attend college. One particular conversation with a young woman stands out.

She shared the story of when and why she first decided to pursue a career in STEM. She told me that as an eighth grader, she wasn’t sure which path she hoped to pursue as an adult, until she attended an after-school program for girls interested in STEM, hosted by Washington University in St. Louis. It was that experience, she acknowledged, that encouraged her to opt for the more difficult AP classes in school and to take risks she might not have otherwise taken. One day in biology class, her teacher posed a question: “Was the myth true that humans only use a small fraction of their brain?” That question has led her on a journey. She will dedicate her life to finding the answer and major in Philosophy-Neuroscience-Psychology — an interdisciplinary program that provides an opportunity to examine the mind from different perspectives — at Washington University.

I am often asked how the collective education community can spark curiosity and interest in STEM fields — as it did with this student and among underserved and underrepresented students. Too often, advocates tend to put themselves in one of two camps: community enrichment or core content. However, in my experience, I’ve learned it is not an “either/or” solution. The real power in sparking curiosity and nurturing student confidence in STEM lies in the synergy of enrichment programs — afterschool activities, summer programs, science fairs, etc. — and rigorous classroom content.

The benefits of after-school activities and summer enrichment programs are limitless. Unlike many traditional classroom models that rely on daily lectures, these programs typically feature highly interactive, hands-on learning experiences for students. They are designed to make learning exciting, not intimidating. Students realize it’s okay to struggle with rigorous content and that it’s normal to not initially grasp new skills. There are no grades to post and no exams to pass, so students feel energized, not beholden. Consequently, when they return to the classroom, students will be more likely to pursue, and excel at, rigorous coursework such as AP or other college-level classes designed to prepare students for the challenges that await them after graduation. As one instructor said to me, “They realize it’s okay to take academic risks and to jump into the deep end of the pool.”

The challenge, then, is to continue these hands-on learning experiences as students transition to classrooms through project-based learning in an outdoor classroom, laboratory, or makerspace. Schools and educators who embrace this approach know students must continue to be nurtured and engaged, both inside and outside of classroom walls. It’s only half the battle to spark their interest in math or science, engineering or technology. That spark must be kept alive and flamed to become an inferno.

Teachers, too, must be given the support they need to allow this type of learning environment to thrive. They must have time and resources to develop both content knowledge and pedagogical skills to succeed.

Teachers have also found success placing more onus on their students to lead the learning, affording them the chance to build foundational skills and to teach those skills to their fellow students. Subsequently, students will gain self-confidence, direction, and a sense of purpose — traits that will help the always-difficult transition to adulthood.

During that same visit to St. Louis, I was struck by how many of these intelligent and ambitious students spoke about the impact after-school activities or summer enrichment programs had on their decision to study STEM-related subjects — or, at a more basic level, the impact it had on their love of learning. More importantly, the students each spoke of an individual school champion — a guidance counselor, teacher, or success counselor — who simply may have asked a thought-provoking question or pointed the way to these life-changing experiences. Between the two camps, it was not an “either/or.”

Since my return, I have often wondered, “What if that curious middle school student did not have the chance to attend that Washington University program? And what if she was not asked that life-altering question in biology class?”

Fortunately, she was.

Raising Curious & Confident Kids is a new blog series geared towards ushering in the next generation of leaders in science, tech, engineering, art, and mathematics (STEAM). How can we give children the curiosity to question and more confidence to create? Let us know at inspirationgeneration@huffingtonpost.com.

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