Four Ways to Better Engage Students in STEM

An IEEE education conference showcases what will spark their interests

25 March 2016

Dozens of educators presented novel ways to get students engaged in the sciences at the IEEE Integrated STEM (science, technology, education, and math) Education Conference. Held on 5 March in Princeton, N.J., The Institute picked four of our favorite ideas.  

  1. 1. Caring about a cause

    When teachers tell students they have to learn about circuits for a test, they’re not likely to be interested in the subject. But high school science teacher Ian Fogarty, who teaches at Riverview High School, in New Brunswick, Canada, figured out if you tell them that 1.5 billion people use kerosene lamps for light that are harmful to their health—students start to care. They’ll ask how they can help, and Fogarty will say, “Well, we can build them lamps.” They then ask how they can help and he’ll explain: “You’ll first need to learn about circuits.”

    Not only did Fogarty get his students involved, but he also asked several other high schools around the world to participate in a project to lamps for people in Honduras and the Dominican Republic. Working off of one another’s ideas, the students came up with several prototypes, such as a wearable lamp that can be placed around the wrist or forehead like a headband. The light emitted moves with the users as they read or write, as opposed to a sedentary lamp on a desk.

    For this project, students also learned how to create 3-D printed circuit boards and how to think about product design. Fogarty also taught the students an important lesson in user acceptance. Instead of the students deciding which final product to donate, they sent several prototypes to people in Honduras and the Dominican Republic to test and provide their feedback.

    “Students want to work on what matters now,” Fogarty says. “Having a cause gives them the motivation to learn. They understand this isn’t just for a grade anymore, but making someone’s life better if they do this well.” His goal is to get enough students involved to make 1 million lamps. More information can be found on the project’s website.

  2. 2. Send students to Rome (or anywhere)

    Joseph Pasquale, a professor of computer science and engineering at the University of California, San Diego, talked about a five-week summer study-abroad program he designed for undergrads at the school. The program focuses showing the creative ways math has been applied in culture, art, and architecture by studying the architectural geometry and structural engineering of Rome’s great monuments.

    The program is comprised of two courses: One that takes place inside a classroom where students learn about mathematical theory; the other is a field trip to Rome’s landmarks such as the Colosseum and the Pantheon, using them as “living laboratories.” There is also a one-week excursion to other cities like Pisa to study the Leaning Tower. Works of art are also studied for their use of mathematics. Pasquale says while students can learn about these subjects in the classroom, nothing compares to visiting the sites and seeing the theories come alive.

  3. 3. Empower them to become entrepreneurs

    Science projects do not have to be thrown away once they’ve been submitted for a grade or in a science fair. Several presentations focused on ways to turn the ideas behind these projects into potential business opportunities.

    SmartKids NY aims to spark elementary grade students’ interests in STEM by educating them about entrepreneurship and innovation. The organization brings entrepreneurs into New York schools to explain to students how they’ve turned their science-based ideas into products and businesses, and get them involved in hands-on projects. The goal is to show the students the many job opportunities in STEM to encourage them to pursue the sciences. Some of the most recent speakers were the CEO of battery company Besstech and cofounder of electronics development platform startup Embedit Electronics.

  4. 4. Teach robotics to students of all ages

    Wei-hsing Wang, technology coordinator of Princeton Day School, talked about how teachers at the school have used robotics in their classrooms to engage students in STEM. The school is for preschool to 12th grade students.  

    Using the Lego Mindstorms EV3 robots kit, the younger students learn how to design and build robots, while the middle and high school students are taught how to program their bots to operate autonomously. These students also submit their robots in local competitions.

    Wang says several younger students end up getting attached to their robots, When the teachers take them apart, the kids shout: “Don’t kill them!”

Have you come across innovative ways to get students engaged in STEM? Share them with us in the comments section below.

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