Special Report
Science From Our Research Center

Educators: Start Early to Keep Students Engaged in STEM

EdWeek asked teachers, principals, and district leaders how to motivate kids to pursue STEM learning.
By Kevin Bushweller — May 28, 2024 2 min read
Photo illustration of chemistry teacher working with young student.
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A majority of students ages 12-18 are interested in careers in science, technology, engineering, or math, finds a 2023 survey sponsored by the Walton Family Foundation. But the survey also found that students, parents, and teachers say schools are not doing a good job preparing kids to pursue careers in those fields.

That is a problem, because recent technological advances—especially in the field of artificial intelligence—are poised to bring big changes to future jobs, particularly in the STEM fields. STEM occupations are projected to grow by almost 11 percent by 2031, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Many schools—at the elementary, middle, and high school levels—are integrating STEM learning into regular classroom instruction in some creative and relevant ways. Many are simultaneously figuring out how to encourage more girls and students of color to pursue studies in STEM areas, showing the kids how their participation could lead to lucrative careers down the road.

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Photo illustration of teen boy working with model.
F. Sheehan for Education Week + E+ / Getty

For this special report on STEM, the EdWeek Research Center asked this open-ended question: “How do schools get more students interested in STEM in elementary school and then maintain that interest throughout middle school and high school?” The EdWeek Research Center received nearly 800 responses from teachers, principals, and district leaders, and Education Week identified 25 of those responses that represented the major themes.

One big theme that emerged was that schools need to start earlier—in elementary school—and give young kids opportunities to do safe, hands-on science and solve developmentally appropriate, real-world problems. In other words, encourage children to investigate how the world works and how to fix its problems. Challenges around lack of time and resources, standardized testing, and professional development were common.

Following are the 25 responses, in the alphabetical order of the states where the educators work:

1   “We have a vertical plan for K-12, starting with weekly STEM classes in elementary, visiting the STEM festival in the spring, then in middle school hands-on STEM and Project Lead the Way classes with competitions and fairs, and in high school job shadowing and STEM career pathway courses.”

—District-level administrator | Arkansas

2   “Science is often treated as a secondary subject in elementary schools due to students having deficits in English/language arts and math. We need to prevent that from happening and use science as a gateway to improving student performance in all subjects.”

—Middle school teacher | Science | California

3   “Stop teaching math *problems* and instead teach mathematical *techniques* to answer real-world questions. Do this with a diverse collection of media; yes, word problems but also problems with a picture of a real-life usage of the math problem, videos, in-class experiments, hands-on activities, etc. Use many representations of the underlying *meaning* of the math, not just shuffling digits around a paper.”

—High school teacher | Math/computer science/data science | California

4   “In a Title I school, all the emphasis is on catching students up to read at grade level. Our schools are graded based on standardized-test scores, so our curriculum is narrow and based on testing. The only way we can move toward more STEM is to move away from the focus on standardized testing.”

—Elementary school teacher | Math/computer science/data science | Colorado

5   “We barely have time to teach science.”

—Elementary school teacher | Florida

6   “This has been very difficult to maintain at my middle school. Science is always the last thing on the list, and not much importance is placed on it until 8th grade. This is when students have to take a science test that affects the school grade.”

—Middle school teacher | Science | Florida

7   “We have many elementary, middle, and high schools that are STEM-certified. The school I work at is one of them. We get students interested because we focus on the hands-on approach as well as emphasizing the attitude of not giving up but finding a different solution and trying again and again.”

—Elementary school teacher | Georgia

8   “There should be a program to retain women in STEM classes, as interest tends to drop off after middle school.”

—High school teacher | Math/computer science/data science | Illinois

9   “Students are interested in elementary, but maintaining interest is hard with the current school setup. The entire system would need to change.”

—High school teacher | Bilingual education/English as a second language | Iowa

10   “In order to attract students into STEM, it is important for students to experience ample opportunities to engage in STEM-centered project-based learning at the elementary level and throughout middle and high school. Traditional instruction and assessment do not foster interest in STEM or other 21st-century careers.”

—High school teacher | Fine arts | Kentucky

11   “They could do it by not simply teaching STEM but by teaching why these subjects are important and exploring their methods to developing knowledge. Kind of a zoomed-out explanation of how and why they should learn these subjects.”

—High school teacher | Louisiana

12   “For some of our schools like mine, due to the loss of Title I funding, we will no longer offer a full STEM class to all or any students for 2025-26. We try to integrate STEM into the general math, science, social studies, and language arts curricula.”

—Elementary school principal | Maryland

13   “They should include more labs and experiments, but many districts, like mine, now seem to rely on videos. This doesn't do much to stoke students’ interest in STEM. Also, we have a lack of teachers in areas of technology and computer science, which are the scientific fields many students are interested in.”

—High school teacher | Bilingual education/English as a second language | Massachusetts

14   “If you are integrating hands-on, project-based learning in elementary school, the curiosity will be there. My school has a dedicated class in middle school for STEM, which I teach, and over the course of a semester, we cover multiple areas of project-based learning that integrates science, math, technology, engineering, and design. The interest in that type of class was high enough that I was asked to teach a high school class based on hands-on learning, and it has become a forensic science class that everyone wants to take!”

—Middle school teacher | Missouri

15   “Our district needs to invest in science curriculum that interests students and gets them curious. Currently, 95 percent of our students say they hate science.”

—Middle school teacher | Math/computer science/data science | New Hampshire

16   “Introduce science early and have young students focus on experimentation. Ask questions, try to come up with ways to discover the answer. Seeing science as a tool and not just another subject can be inspiring and engaging.”

—High school teacher | Science | New York

17   “Stronger elementary programs.”

—District superintendent | New York

18   “There needs to be a focus on STEM curriculum in elementary. Testing needs to change. It impedes the problem-based learning that many STEM curricula utilize.”

—Elementary school teacher | Bilingual education/English as a second language | Ohio

19   “Prioritize STEM professional development for elementary and middle school teachers. Provide paid time for STEM teachers across the K-12 spectrum to meet and discuss/plan. Adopt and provide training for research-based methods of teaching STEM subjects (modeling, argument-driven inquiry, etc.).”

—High school teacher | Science | Ohio

20   “Many STEM classes are offered after school. This is difficult for students who do not have any other transportation besides school buses.”

—Middle school teacher | English-language arts/literacy/reading | Oklahoma

21   “We have a solid K-5 STEM program that reaches every student. At the middle school level, we have STEM classes that reach about 66 percent of the students in 6th and 7th grade and we have a coding elective at the 8th grade level. Our high school is in the process of developing a solid STEM program.”

—Elementary school teacher | Pennsylvania

22   “We are a STEM-certified school and district. Integration of STEM education is how we have successfully built and maintained interest. Students in our district can fly a plane through our aeronautics program, before they can drive a car. There are so many STEM opportunities here!”

—Elementary school principal | Tennessee

23   “We have STEM as a special rotation, so students get STEM class every five days. Last year, we also had a bimonthly STEM club, which was well attended. Finally, we have a family STEM night each school year, and that is a big hit.”

—Elementary school teacher | Utah

24   “Raise teacher pay so that people with STEM skills are more willing to teach instead of making significantly more in the private sector.”

—High school teacher | Math/computer science/data science | Virginia

25   “Show a passion for these subjects while teaching them and help students see the importance of learning these subjects, beyond the 'you will need this later.'”

—Elementary school teacher | Math/computer science/data science | Washington

Coverage of problem solving and student motivation is supported in part by a grant from The Lemelson Foundation, at www.lemelson.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
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