Making STEM fun and engaging.

Students talk about how to improve STEM classes.


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I interviewed middle school boys and girls separately. The boys were all interested in making the learning more competitive by creating and using games to learn content. Their idea of what constituted competition ran from winning at games to grades given by the teacher. They like hands-on activities. For math classes, they suggested creating "fun games to play and create" to help them learn. The boys also said that science tests were difficult for them because they felt like there was too much time between the experiments and the tests. They felt like if the teacher required them to make "flash cards," that would be very helpful. When asked if they could have made them on their own, they said yes, but then they wouldn't have gotten a grade for them, reinforcing the idea that competition helped to fuel their engagement.

The girls were a surprise. I asked them if they would prefer all-girl classes, and they all said no, that "girls were mean and that boys helped to break-up "mean girl syndrome." (When I asked the boys if they would prefer single-gender classes, the boys admitted that girls "were sometimes a distraction," but if the class were all boys, "it would be nothing but chaos.") The girls lamented the lack of their ability to use their own creativity in what they produced to prove learning such as building a diorama or poster. They wanted more choice. They also stated that they much preferred when presentations were in color instead of just black and white. They preferred classes that used humor and jokes in the lesson. They came back to the use of humor several times. One of their most memorable lessons was when a math teacher created a multiplication grid with tape on the ground, and they had to hop to the correct answer. They specifically said they liked working in Sketchup when the project allowed them to use their own imaginations instead of creating something given to them by the teacher. One of their biggest complaints about some classes was that their teacher "did not keep personal things personal." For instance, "the teacher would call out test scores or when walking around the room, observing them at work, would loudly say, "You misspelled that word, or you did that [problem] wrong." They felt like they needed more time to process in order to learn new information.

[Optional] Synthesize a little! In one sentence, describe something you learned from your empathy exercises or analogous research.

It seems like girls crave humor and using their imaginations and being allowed choice while boys want competition to help fuel their desire to learn.


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Photo of Skyler Rossacci

Richard-such a great post and so excited to hear you interviewed your students! After reflecting on your students' want to use their creativity it makes me wonder how might we incorporate more creativity and choice in lessons and not just projects where this seems to be the typical time for the creative senses to be unleashed-but to create a classroom that was personalized to meet the needs of each students' creative desire would be AWESOME! Another point that resonated with me was the aspect of humor in the learning process. Students love to relate to their teachers and see that they are "Real" people too and knowing from the empathy interviews that humor was mentioned several times makes me think of a classroom full of laughter that is very comfortable for EVERY child. I wonder how might we incorporate elements of playfulness and humor into authentic STEM learning to relate to students and capture their attention for learning-now that we know that is something they are craving this is great element to incorporate into designing solutions!


For years my wife told me I should be offering book choices to my students instead of whole class novels when I was teaching high school English. When I finally took her advice, I remember offering my Pre-AP classes a choice of four different books, one of which was especially difficult to read. I didn't think anyone would choose it. I made a point of telling each class how difficult the book was with it insanely long and convoluted sentence structures. Sure enough, in each class I had several students who willingly took the challenge and in each case, each student who chose this book (A Picture of Dorian Gray) read the entire book and did quite well with the project they had to complete. The thing that I learned about choice was that it doesn't have to be a free-for-all, anything goes kind of choice but rather the students' ability to choose between what is available. They choose, they take on the responsibility for their own choice. Choice doesn't have to be difficult, just available.

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