Top tips for engaging your STEM students

How can you keep your STEM students engaged in the classroom?

Follow these tips to keep your STEM classes interesting and exciting. By ensuring your lessons are relevant, interactive and interdisciplinary, your students will appreciate the value of all aspects of STEM, leading to greater engagement with the topics you are teaching.

1. Make it relevant

If a student’s answer to “Why am I learning this?” is “Because I need to know it for the exam”, then we know they will have minimal motivation to truly understand the topic. And, chances are, the knowledge will leave their head as soon as the exam is over. To encourage students to genuinely engage with the topic, it needs to be relevant to them and they need to appreciate its importance in their own lives.

How can you relate the topics you are teaching in the classroom to the students’ own experiences? Evidence shows that integrating current global issues into your curriculum, connecting your subject to the local community, and showing students how the skills they are developing can be applied in their everyday life is an effective way to engage STEM students. For example, Teach the Future, a youth-led organisation, believes that the climate crisis can be addressed in any class. Consider how every aspect, from food security to renewable energy technology, links to your subject.

Many young people feel that school isn’t equipping them with the skills they need to succeed in life. So, for example, when teaching percentages, explain what it means to borrow a loan. Get students to calculate how much money they will owe the bank, based on how much they borrow, what the interest rate of the loan is, and how long it will take them to repay it. By demonstrating the relevance of the topic, students are more likely to engage in STEM.

2. Make it interactive

It is often said that we learn by doing, and a recent study by researchers at the University of Chicago has shown that students do indeed gain a deeper understanding of scientific concepts when they experience them in active tasks rather than just reading about them. Learning should therefore be active, not passive. Reading, memorising and regurgitating facts will not help most students retain information. Instead, active learning involves engaging with the material, helping students to truly comprehend the topic.

So, how can you introduce hands-on activities into your independent school classroom? While experiments have a key role in biology (e.g., growing plants), chemistry (e.g., performing chemical reactions) and physics (e.g., building electrical circuits), practical activities can enhance any STEM lesson. In maths classes, students can test mechanical equations by rebounding a ball off a wall at different speeds and angles. Geography students can demonstrate their understanding of contours by constructing a topographic model of a mapped landscape out of modelling clay.

Be creative with how to teach theoretical concepts in interactive ways. And, if you’re stuck for ideas, why not ask your students?! After introducing them to a topic, task them with developing an interactive lesson to teach the topic to others. Peer-teaching is a great form of active learning, as you need to understand a concept before you can explain it. And, by participating in hands-on activities, your students are more likely to engage in STEM.

3. Make it interdisciplinary

All too often, we consider individual subjects as isolated. Mathematics teachers teach mathematics in classrooms, chemistry teachers teach chemistry in labs, and PE teachers teach sports on the playing field. In school settings, timetable allocations can suggest all subjects are distinct but, in reality, every subject is connected, and it is essential students know this if they are to appreciate the interdisciplinary nature of life.

How can you link the topics you are teaching to other areas of the curriculum? While some examples are obvious (mathematical equations are the base of physics principles which inform engineered structures and designs), it is equally important to combine STEM subjects with the arts and humanities. Why not integrate maths with art, to create geometric designs of tessellated shapes? Or physics with music, to explore the frequency and pitch of sounds?

The key skills most commonly mentioned by the scientific researchers we work with are coding and communication. How can you include these in your STEM lessons? The ability to write computer code is essential in almost all fields of science these days. And the ability to interact with others, articulate your ideas and listen to different opinions is an essential life skill for everyone.

STEM classes are an ideal place to develop coding skills. Can students use a programming language to calculate the mean value of a dataset? Can they write a code to plot the results of their experiment in a graph? Can they create a computer model to show how a river will erode its channel?

Integrate forms of written, verbal and visual communication into your STEM lessons to give your students the opportunity to develop these key skills. They could write a laboratory report describing an experiment or a blog article informing the public about antimicrobial resistance. They could organise a debate about the pros and cons of electric vehicles. After creating a product in design and technology, they could produce a poster to advertise it to consumers. By highlighting how skills and knowledge from different subjects are interrelated, your students will see how all topics are connected and integral to their everyday lives.

Visit www.futurumcareers.com to find articles discussing current interdisciplinary research being carried out by academics, from improving food security using computing skills, to the importance of electronics engineering in the transition to green energy, to the role of poverty in antimicrobial resistance. Each article includes information about careers in the field, showing students how the subject is relevant in the real world and how they could pursue a career in it. Each article is accompanied by an activity sheet, providing ideas for interactive tasks to engage your students with the topic.

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