Inspire Your Students to Pursue STEM Careers: Strategy 2

Welcome to post 2 in our series that lays out the strategies in our STEM teacher guidebook (available for download end of Mar. 2014). This guide was written by:

Dr. Candace Walkington, Asst Professor of Mathematics Education, Southern Methodist University and 
Dr. Margaret Lucero, Asst Professor of Science Education, Santa Clara University.

2) Answer the question of “When am I ever going to use this?”

Many of the teaching strategies in this guidebook will allow students to see how the concepts they are learning from their STEM classes apply to real challenges and problems being confronted in the world today. They will let students see how STEM subjects can be a powerful and useful way for us to understand our world. When teachers can create learning environments that answer the question of “When am I ever going to use this?” students’ utility value – their perception of the usefulness of relevance of the content they are learning – is enhanced. And research has shown that when instructional approaches are used that enhance students’ utility value, motivation and academic achievement are improved (Durik & Harackiewicz, 2007; Hulleman, Godes, Hendricks, & Harackiewicz, 2010; Hulleman & Harackiewicz, 2009; Sansone, Fraughton, Zachary, Butner, & Heiner, 2011). Finding ways to enhance utility value for STEM subjects is especially critical because research has shown that students’ interest in learning STEM subjects declines over adolescence (Fredicks & Eccles, 2002; Frenzel, Gotez, Pekrun, & Watt, 2010; Speering & Rennie, 1996). Students begin to make a decision that STEM is not for them, and their motivation and interest for learning STEM subjects suffers.

But how can teachers develop in their students’ long-term interest in pursuing STEM fields? Recent work on the development of interest (Hidi & Renninger, 2006) has shown that interest in learning a subject can begin as a temporary state, triggered in response to a classroom activity that is exciting, puzzling, personally interesting, or evocative. As students re-engage in their classroom over time with similar activities, their temporary interest can slowly become more permanent, and they can become intrinsically motivated learners who begin to pursue the subject of their own accord. Supporting the triggering and maintenance of interest in your students is not an easy task. Many of the excellent activities and resources cited in this guidebook can help bring about this change. Recent research has shown that it is beneficial when learning environments are personalized to the interests, lives, and experiences of young students. In a study where students received mathematics instruction that was personalized to their experiences in interests like sports, playing video games, and social networking, Walkington (2013) found that students learned more math in the long term. Some resources for implementing personalized learning in mathematics are provided in this article.

In science classrooms, a variety of researchers (e.g., Tal, Krajcik, and Blumenfeld, 2006; Krajcik, Blumenfeld, Marx, Bass, & Fredericks, 1998) have demonstrated students experience learning gains when participating in inquiry activities situated within real-world contexts. Some excellent resources that provide teachers with ideas and real scientific data to use in classrooms include The National Science Digital Library, Science NetLinks, NOAA Education Ocean Service, Science Education Resource Center, NASA for Educators, Smithsonian Wild, the U.S. Geological Survey, and The Macaulay Library.

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