How Real-World Learning Can Improve STEM Student Engagement

Storyteller: Rhea (she/her/hers), 17, Virginia

Story Transcript:

I grew up as a pretty curious kid to the point where my parents even called me Miss Inquisitive, because of the endless streams of questions I'd ask about anything and everything. “How It's Made” was my favorite show because it broke down the “why” that I was always seeking to find. From the mechanisms of marshmallows, to what was in my Oreos, I found each episode incredibly fascinating. So it might not surprise you when I say I wanted to go into STEM, but my journey in pursuing it was definitely not a smooth one. 

My curiosity really piqued in middle school, and I love the idea of medicine because each patient coming through the door was a mystery that the physician needed to solve. That finally seemed like the “why” I'd always been searching for. But it was during this time that I really confronted, for the first time, the struggle that I continue bumping into even as a high school student. The first thing that I see when I google any such STEM profession, or what STEM is, it's always just the technical jargon, which can really throw someone off, and I know it did for me, certainly. The stream of knowledge that exists for STEM prospective students, is kind of scary in that it's only just showing us the “what,” when this is actually such a limited facet of knowledge. I still ask myself, “Where on earth is the 'why'? Where is the application of it?” 

The fact is, we go to school and pursue higher least we're told to gather information that is going to help us in our careers. But seeing that this is the type of information that exists, are we really? Are we really as an educational system creating knowledge that caters to the curiosity and hunger of youth minds? We, as the youth, truthfully want something that we can use in the real world. If I, for example, compare my experiences in Chemistry and Psychology -- for example in Chemistry, we learn all about the states of matter, how they change, and the formulas and concepts associated with it, it can be pretty mind boggling and frustrating to understand since we never know why it really matters. On the other hand, my teacher in AP Psychology, rather than giving us a list of terms to learn, actually explained why concepts matter, what hormones in the brain make us happy or sad, what bodily mechanisms kick into action when we are afraid. And because it all related back to the self and was personally applicable, this knowledge resonated so much more with me, and also helped cultivate my love for neuroscience to that end. Seeing how I responded so differently in these two formats of instruction instantly brought that question I always hear from my peers to mind. “When am I ever going to use this? Is this ever going to help me?” And this is the instant turnoff so many students have in STEM classes. 

So, now it raises the exciting question, “What if?” What if we make education more applicable? What if we show students how in-school learning is directly relevant to their everyday lives? I can only imagine what a powerful momentum that could create.

headshot of a young student

We, as the youth, truthfully want something that we can use in the real world.