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How to get kids to love science and math

STEM is the hottest acronym in education. Here are tips from Colorado's Teacher of the Year for helping students discover science, tech, engineering and math.

November 4, 2019

By Matt Watson

STEM may be the hottest acronym in education, as you can easily find detailed lists for the top STEM schools, the top STEM toys and the top STEM jobs.

That last list may be the reason today’s teachers and parents are so focused on the first two lists – they’ve watched jobs in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) grow by 79% since 1990, according to Pew Research, while the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects continued growth in STEM occupations for the next decade.

The need for STEM-educated individuals is especially acute in Colorado, where BLS data show Colorado has the fifth-highest percentage of jobs in STEM among all states, with 8.8% of Coloradans holding specific titles such as atmospheric scientist, computer programmer, chemical engineer or statistician.

The numbers are even higher in larger cities – 9.3% in each of Colorado Springs and Fort Collins, 9.6% in metro Denver and a whopping 17.2% in Boulder, which is one of the most STEM-saturated cities in the country.

Workforce needs don’t inherently trickle down to children’s hobbies or Christmas lists, however. So how do we teach today’s kids the skills needed for tomorrow’s jobs?

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The science of learning

Ingrid Carter, associate professor of elementary education at Metropolitan State University of Denver, says the key to teaching science to students is helping them discover it themselves.

Carter employs the 5E instructional model with her teacher-education students:

  1. Engaging learners
  2. Exploring phenomena
  3. Explaining phenomena
  4. Elaborating scientific concepts and abilities
  5. Evaluating learners

Crucially, the explanation phase comes after the students have already explored a new idea without knowing what it is, rather than a teacher explaining how to do something before having the students try it out.

“Rather than the teacher front-loading it and saying, ‘This is what we’re going to learn today, and here’s the vocabulary,’ they’re actually exploring the concept before they’re even labeling it,” she said. “This may be a new idea for parents. The teacher is not the one lecturing – the student is actually formulating ideas on their own first, and then the teacher is guiding those thoughts.”

The preferred way is more like watching a movie with a big reveal at the climax, as opposed to the traditional way of learning more akin to reading a recipe and carrying it out step-by-step. Which is more likely to stick with you long-term?

“My students often say they learned science by reading a textbook, and many of us learned science that way,” Carter said. “This way is different because students are engaging in not only hands-on activities, but they’re actually applying critical thinking. We use the phrase ‘hands-on, minds-on.’”

A practical lesson Carter conducted with her students was reading a children’s book called ‘Sheep in a Jeep’ about sheep driving up and down hills and crashing. The students then built ramps and rolled toy cars down the ramps, measuring how far cars went from different lengths of ramps before a discussion of how things move. In the next class, they elaborated on the concept by adding sandpaper to the tracks to introduce friction.

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This inquiry-driven approach is evident in the Colorado Academic Standards for Science, where the first of eight Science and Engineering Practices is “asking questions (for science) and defining problems (for engineering).”

Carter, recently honored with the 2019 Colorado Association of Science Teachers Award for Excellence in Teaching College Science, says parents can easily apply this approach at home, too.

“A parallel between parenting and teaching would be when your child asks a question and you just answer, ‘This happens because of this.’ That’s like a teacher lecturing. With a more exploratory, inquiry-based approach, you would say, ‘Let’s find that out together,’” she said.

An investigation can be as simple as using Google when a more hands-on approach isn’t possible, Carter said. For example, a question about space could lead to browsing the NASA website.

Ingrid Carter, Ph.D., associate professor of elementary education, was honored in October with the 2019 Award for Excellence in Teaching College Science by the Colorado Association of Science Teachers. Photo by Amanda Schwengel.
Ingrid Carter, Ph.D., associate professor of elementary education, was honored in October with the 2019 Award for Excellence in Teaching College Science by the Colorado Association of Science Teachers. Photo by Amanda Schwengel.

Making the most of math

Teacher-education students at MSU Denver take a block of math and science methods courses at the same time while also going through a field experience in a local school. Sue Ahrendt, associate professor of elementary education, teaches math methods with a similar model as Carter: Launch, Explore, Summary.

Math can be much more engaging than memorizing multiplication tables, Ahrendt says.

“There are some folks who think elementary education is just learning addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. Then you get into fractions, and it’s just, ‘Copy what I show you, and I’ll make it easy for you,’” Ahrendt said. “People tend to teach the way they were taught, unless they reflect on it. That’s why we encourage reflection.”

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The Colorado Academic Standards for Math, similar to the science standards, begin with “Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.” Ahrendt credits MSU Denver’s math program for facilitating dynamic assignments in the courses it provides as a foundation for teacher-education students.

“Math students should be given a chance to investigate rich mathematical tasks, to engage in the study of patterns – which exist in art and nature as well – and to have a chance to approach problems with multiple strategies,” Ahrendt said. “Students in MSU Denver math classes collaborate with their peers when solving problems. They are encouraged to work together, communicate about mathematics, justify their thinking and make sense of each others’ unique solution strategies. This is the way we are called to teach math in the schools."

Students are to take an active role in problem-solving, which Ahrendt compares to playing video games.

“Video games come down to solving problems,” she said. “You hand a controller to a kid, and they figure it out. Nobody told them, ‘I’m going to tell you how to turn it on. Then you jump over this thing, then check in the treasure chest.’ No, they’re just trying everything to see what works. If you’re allowing students to actually solve problems, you’re empowering them, and that’s where the joy in math is.”

Video games present natural problem-solving opportunities for children, and teachers can make lessons out of games like Pac-Man where students calculate the best path by figuring out the speed of the characters, the distances between them and the number of dots on the screen.

Additionally, Ahrendt says there is too much focus in schools on the speed of completing math problems rather than comprehension. Laurent Schwartz, an award-winning mathematician, wrote in his autobiography that he thought he was stupid in school because he answered questions slower than other students.

“I … came to the conclusion that rapidity doesn’t have a precise relation to intelligence. What is important is to deeply understand things and their relations to each other. This is where intelligence lies. The fact of being quick or slow isn’t really relevant,” Schwartz wrote.

Ahrendt says anyone can be a “math person” if given the chance to fully explore the concepts. She offers math lesson plans on her website for teachers and others, including some that can be used by parents at home, such as learning to estimate numbers by baking cookies or choosing the fastest path in a video game.

“People define their math ability by the time tests that they took in the second grade. There used to be a lot of comparing in mathematics, but you don’t sit and compare yourself with someone else when you’re writing stories,” she said. “It’s not about who can calculate fastest; it’s about valuing the process and valuing the mistakes – that’s where learning happens.”

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