STEM Anxiety

7 Effective Ways to Address STEM Anxiety

First, you must believe that STEM anxiety exists. A simple search for “math anxiety,” will turn up innumerable studies, posts, blogs, research articles … you name it.  In fact, we published our own take on the subject which you can read by clicking here.  But that anxiety that students have around math subjects carries over to nearly all STEM subjects – especially as those subjects and concepts are represented in quantitative ways.  In her 1993 book titled, “Overcoming math anxiety,” Sheila Tobias suggests that, “millions of adults are blocked from professional and personal opportunities because they fear or perform poorly in mathematics. Most of these adults are capable of learning more mathematics … theirs is not a failure of intellect, but a failure of nerve.”

Assuming that you agree with the basic assumption that STEM skills are essential for long term career success (remember that 67% of all jobs will require primarily STEM competencies by 2018 — and that these are the highest paying, fastest growing occupations with the greatest career potential) – consider the discussion you have with students about school and the key factors that drive or inhibit engagement.

Certainly, family issues, living environment, friends … and a long list of psycho-social factors influence student engagement in the classroom.  We all know, however, students that find a way to overcome these factors … students within whom a spark is ignited to drive them into subjects and out of whatever life situations they may face.

This spark may be ignited by fantastic teachers, by a counselor, a coach, a mentor, a friend … or even some internal drive to pursue something they love.  I would propose that one of the greatest issues driving students away from the critical knowledge and skills they need to succeed as adults is less about a specific subject and more about a “relationships” between themselves and a subject they or someone in their life has positioned as “hard” and reserved only for an elite group of “nerds” or “geniuses.”  What this means, is that you the educator – whether teacher or counselor – stand as the most important figure in the lives of these students to address a fundamental challenge that currently results in a globally economic crisis known as the STEM skills gap.

Yes … you really are that important to the global economy.  More importantly … you are that important to the dreams and aspirations of millions of students.  But .. you’re not alone.  STEM Jobs is focused on creating resources that are easy to use, that are backed by research, and that are effective.


While there is no perfect equation for awakening the spark of academic inspiration in a student’s heart and mind, there are steps all educators can take to address STEM anxiety.  Here are our 7 Effective Practices:

  1. Ask the question:  “Do you really hate math? – science? physics?”  

Identify and capitalize on student attitudes and self-perceptions, and find ways to discover their interests, goals, and concerns.  Music is math … sports are all about physics …. the things students love are explained, unveiled, and often made possible by the very subjects they “think” they hate.

  1.  Express enthusiasm and wonder for topics of study.

Many educators themselves harbor a secret fear of STEM subjects … even those that teach them.  In fact, recent studies revealed that STEM teachers are less likely than their non-STEM counterparts to engage in discussions about their curriculum with colleagues due to fear of exposing weakness in certain knowledge areas.  As educators we need to deal with this while outwardly expressing the enthusiasm and wonder that drew us to the subject to begin with.

  1. Create interest during discussion through novelty and surprise

STEM Jobs Magazine and online articles are a great source of inspiration.  Students need something to shake up their day … and if you think about it – likely the only people you remember from school are those unique individuals that had mastered the art of surprise.

  1. Include students in making connections with the real world

No matter how connected you think you are … or how awesome your illustrations seem to you — you’re probably way out of date and out of touch.  No problem .. students minds are naturally drifting as it is … why not direct that drifting to your own benefit and let them make the connections to things that are meaningful to them.

  1. Help students make emotional connections

We don’t want a ball of tears in class or the counseling rooms …. hormones are running hard enough as it is.  Creating emotionally compelling connections between challenging subjects for students through stories and examples can help break student anxiety.

  1. Teach the value of STEM subjects

Students will more readily engage in STEM subjects when they see the relevance.  Remember that “motivation” is a STATE, not a trait.  And states are much easier to change and influence than traits.  Fostering value is one of the best ways to accomplish this.  In each issue of STEM Jobs, we outline value propositions for 30 occupations by answering questions like – “why will I like it?” and “how much will I make”

  1. Help students connect STEM subjects to their sense of self

On the surface, this sounds like an incredibly high hill to climb, especially with students that are actively disengaged.  Yet, educators have often found this very method to be the most effective.  Take the student whose family has never attended college, but perhaps has some military service.  Likely there are aspects of that student’s self-perception that reflect aspects like being cool under pressure, service-minded, able to handle crisis … all of which relate very well to health professions … all of which require biology, chemistry, physics ….  Our STEM Type tool is designed specifically to help students gain a STEM identity and then connect that identity to careers.  Be sure to check it out at


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Daniel Nichols

Fearless Leader at STEM Jobs
"There is very little that we can do that has a greater, practical impact on a person's life than to assist them in discovering their vocation .... their higher purpose." Daniel's pursuit of his own calling to bridge education and employment began more than a decade ago working with new medical students on the Haiti-Dominican border, and has stretched through his experiences in combat operations in Iraq to serving as a Presidential appointee at the US Department of Labor, and in his entrepreneurial leadership in the launch of vocational programs in healthcare, energy, and advanced manufacturing. An accomplished speaker, writer and business leader, Daniel's passion for individual transformation has led to the creation and launch of STEM Jobs.

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