A move to overcome STEM’s uncool image

Mention science, technology, engineering, or mathematics in polite conversation, and people will likely cringe with memories from their school experiences. For many years, there has been a stigma related to STEM courses and degrees, that they are simply “too challenging.” To enjoy any of these subjects was to be labeled a “nerd,” and to teach them was even worse.

So how can that negative perception of such an important and often lucrative field be overcome?

Dr. John Walz, incoming dean of the University of Kentucky College of Engineering, tackles the stigma not by implying that STEM fields aren’t challenging, but by saying that students are simply underestimating themselves and their capabilities.

“Students can do it,” Walz said. “We just need to get over this stereotype. It’s not an impossible major. Is it more challenging than others? Yes. It’s a challenging four or five years, but the rewards are tremendous when you get out.”

When asked how to get students interested in STEM learning at the high-school level, James Hardin, Fayette County Public Schools’ coordinator of career and technical education, said, “I think what we overall have to look at is engaging students. If we engage students with meaningful curriculum and activities, they will rise to the occasion. The fact is is that we have many students who are interested in many fields, we just need to work on identifying the students who are up to the challenge of STEM.”

On the high-school level, the most useful way of determining which students are interested in STEM is by using their individualized learning plans (ILP). According to the Kentucky Department of Education’s website, ILPs begin exploring career interests in the sixth grade by determining which careers match each student’s skills and interests, and creating education plans to establish personal goals for the student’s education throughout school.

According to Hardin, though, there are other ways to encourage students to explore STEM learning.

“Get the word out, not only to the students, but to the families, the parents, and the communities,” Hardin said. “A lot of different schools have individualized things that they do at their schools; teachers can ‘sell’ their programs to kids and parents during events like incoming orientations, etc.”

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