Over the last five years there has been an increasing amount of discussions about science and the way it is being taught at the middle school level, or the “wonder years.” A large number of after-school programs and extracurricular activities have been designed to teach children skills such as coding and building apps as young as five or six years of age. There are programs that focus on a plethora of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) topic areas, from physics and chemistry to learning about magnets and building robots.
This focus on STEM learning is well-deserved. STEM is prevalent in every aspect of life today, and the use of technology in our daily activities will only increase with time. Science and engineering impacts the construction of every bit of infrastructure around us, and also impacts how we think about our environment and the future of this earth. In this era of the internet-of-things, which translates to smart cars, smart homes, and almost smart-everything, the focus on STEM subjects is crucial.
Timing is Everything
It is believed that teaching children about STEM fields in middle school, when they are in their wonder years, is most valuable. They are able to absorb the subject matter, understand the importance of what they are learning, and also potentially consider long-term perusal of the same subjects. This is the age when children are curious, and are learning to question what is around them while thinking critically. However, if the subject is not taught in an appealing manner, this is also the time when children lose interest very quickly. The way these subjects are taught in current classroom settings is pedantic and based heavily on textbooks, far removed from what the children are experiencing in their lives at this point, causing children to choose not to pursue careers in STEM.
There is also still a very wide gender gap in STEM fields, which could potentially be shortened if we focus on engaging young girls in STEM at this level, when they are very impressionable. They will be able to follow through on STEM careers only once their curiosity and interest is piqued, if they get the right tutelage at the time that they are introduced to these subjects. It has been found that it is right after middle school that the most number of girls drop out of the STEM spheres of education, opting for other subjects. There is obviously a need to engage them in a more deliberate system that keeps their interest in these subjects alive, perhaps by aligning it with the sort of real life scenarios and topic areas that generally interest girls in their wonder years.