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Hands-on learning key to kids` interest in sci/tech fields

By Matt Ford | Last updated February 17, 2010 6:28 AM

Last year we reported on the results of the annual Lemelson-MIT Invention Index, which showed US teens were very interested in studying science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields and pursuing careers in these areas. While last year`s survey found that 85 percent of teens were at least interested in STEM fields, that number has dropped to 77 percent in this year`s survey. Although a large percentage of US teens are still interested in STEM fields, we`ll need a few more years before we can tell if the decline represents a longer-term trend.

When asked which career fields contributed the most to society`s well-being, teacher, doctors, and scientists were ranked highest (in that order), and accounted for 74 percent of the responses. Somewhat sadly—for someone such as myself—engineers garnered a mere five percent of the responses, a scant three points ahead of politicians and tied with "other." 

These results can be interpreted as an indication of many teens not knowing exactly what engineers do. Teachers` and doctors` job roles are easily understandable by high school aged individuals, thanks to a high degree of interaction. Other studies have shown that engineers, on the other hand, perform jobs that are not understood by a large portion of the US, high school-aged or otherwise.

With teachers receiving high marks for their contributions to society, it is no surprise that they play a major role in getting teens excited about STEM fields. More than half of the respondents said that simply having a teacher who knows and is interested in STEM fields would encourage them to pursue further learning. This result dovetails nicely with last year`s finding that the simple act of having a mentor greatly increases a teens chances of pursuing a STEM career.

Given the wide variety of teaching philosophies and methods available, being able to narrow down the list of those that promote interest in STEM could be valuable to teachers. The survey found that field trips to places where students can get first-hand experience with those in STEM careers were the best way to encourage interest in STEM fields. 

Next on the list was access to places outside the classroom that provide hands-on activities and allow experiments to be carried out. This interest in hand-on learning was also seen when students were asked what type of classroom activity was the most engaging. Two-thirds of teens chose hands-on projects, either individual or group, as their favorite classroom activity. Looking back on my grade school time, I can clearly remember building paper bridges, but can`t remember the countless days of being lectured to.

Although this survey has only been going for a few years, a few trends seem to be obvious. Once again, the survey indicates that teens (12-17) are interested in the possibility of pursuing STEM careers. Role models continue to be a powerful influence—in this case, the results highlighted teachers who are both knowledgeable and interested in STEM fields. The survey also found that non-traditional learning methods received the most positive feedback. Hands-on tinkering either in or out of the classroom, as well as traveling to places where STEM knowledge is put to use, were both memorable and had a positive influence on perceptions of the fields.

Given that President Obama has announced a campaign to improve STEM education, the survey results should provide valuable insight into the programs that are most effective.