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.

Photo of Trever Reeh

I like the fact that your students were comfortable enough to ask for groups that were boys and girls. I'm sure it impacted how they interacted and worked together.


In fact, I was the one who wanted to interview them separately. I've found in the past that answers are sometimes skewed when genders are mixed. I wanted to make sure that answers were not skewed by preconceived notions of what someone else expected an answer to be.

Photo of KRISTIN Nash

Richard, I am struck by the student's feelings about errors or mistakes being pointed out in class.  When done improperly revealing mistakes can make students feel isolated and might cause them to shut down, but when done well, exposing mistakes is a great starting point for further investigation.  I wonder how we can help students see mistakes not as negative reflections of work, but potential avenues for extended study?


I was also surprised by their response, especially since I have corrected all the girls at one time or another but did not get "attitude" from any of them ever. I got the feeling that they were all talking about the same teacher (I told them I didn't want to hear any specific names) and that that teacher had not done much in the way of creating any kind of relationship with the students. I know that my first goal with students is to build a solid relationship even before beginning teaching any content. I've been told by teachers, "My students don't have to like me, they just need to respect me and learn," but I've found that students who like you and respect you are much easier to teach, and the classroom atmosphere is so much more pleasant.

Photo of Lesli Brown

Hi Richard! What interesting insights your students have given! The specificity in their insights is interesting. It makes me wonder how we might combine some of these ideas in order to meet the needs of all of your students. Their comments definitely lead me to think!! 

Photo of Erin Quinn

It's interesting that both groups have identified hands-on learning as something that helps them learn. I wonder what the implications might be?

Photo of Scott Lewis

Richard, very nice job interviewing students to find out this information. I'm surprised that you would get gender differences like this and suspect it may be related to interviewing boys as a group and girls as a group, where they might reinforce some tendencies. In any case, I'm sure the students appreciated your efforts to get their feedback and wonder if they are aware of and interested in your participation in this on-line community?

Photo of Michelle Fontenot

Great post, Richard! I'm sure your kiddos relished the opportunity to bend a teacher's ear about what they wanted to see more of in their classrooms. I enjoyed reading about the girls' need for choice and creativity when demonstrating their learning, which I appreciate as a learner myself. Many of the students' insights are applicable to teaching any subject, but the incorporation of humor and creativity in our lessons is a particular challenge for us math and science folk. I wonder how we might strike a balance between our need to impart technical knowledge and the students' need to tinker, experiment, and create meaningful connections for themselves. Thanks for sharing!