Students Can Thrive in STEM—But They Need the Right Push

As a child, I dreamed of becoming an astronaut or marine biologist, but my life’s trajectory changed during middle school when a teacher told me I didn’t have a place in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects and…

As a child, I dreamed of becoming an astronaut or marine biologist, but my life’s trajectory changed during middle school when a teacher told me I didn’t have a place in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects and that I would never be successful in those fields.

I don’t know exactly why she thought I wasn’t “cut out” for science; she never told me. And I, as a young teen, unfortunately, never questioned her. But had I known what I do today, I would have understood I was being deprived of the future I longed for. Unfortunately, at the impressionable age of 13, I fell into the trap of believing there were limits to what I could do. So, instead, I threw myself into sports and other subjects—such as English, the arts, marketing, and communications—where I felt more confident.Childhood through adolescence is a critical period for students’ confidence-building and identity formation. It’s also a time when the adults around them can—often accidentally—send young people the message that they aren’t good enough because of their gender, race, identity, orientation, or family background. These moments that can instill doubt have the potential to damage students’ self-worth for a lifetime. As adults, it can be difficult for us to see beyond our own negative perceptions about ourselves, but it’s critical we encourage students’ identity discovery through participation in activities that can build their confidence and self-esteem.Now, nearly 40 years after that teacher made me believe STEM wasn’t for me, it’s disheartening to see that the same barriers I faced in my youth are ones that students are confronting today. No young person deserves to be made to feel like they are less than, “not smart enough,” or “not right” for STEM or other educational pursuits.STEM can be a pathway to prepare students to take on tomorrow’s challenges. Relevant STEM extracurriculars can not only bolster subject-matter competency, but they also give students teamwork-derived skills, such as how to prevent and navigate conflict; encourage balanced participation and inclusion; develop social competencies; build social bridges; and challenge assumptions and stereotypes.However, a recent survey by the global marketing and communication firm Allison + Partners commissioned by FIRST, the global nonprofit youth education community I lead, found 29 percent of kids don’t feel smart enough to join a STEM-related program, despite 54 percent stating they did or would want to join a STEM or robotics extracurricular to learn a new skill. It’s clear that many more students could thrive in STEM if they just had a push to get started.Recently, FIRST launched a new campaign designed to promote self-esteem through STEM. This campaign was informed by the work of several leading experts of student development—work which can help offer that push students need to find a more resilient mindset through STEM.Robert Brooks—a clinical psychologist, part-time Harvard Medical School faculty member, and leading expert on resilience, motivation, and school climate—explains that a resilient mindset includes problem-solving, self-discipline, competence, the ability to view mistakes and setbacks as learning experiences, and a sense of purpose and meaning. A basic foundation for resilience is the presence of encouraging and supportive adults; they may be in a child’s life for many years or just briefly, but those who convey unconditional acceptance and prioritize focusing on reinforcing students’ strengths—or as Brooks calls them, “islands of competence”—instead of their deficits can have a lifelong impact. In addition, providing youth with opportunities to use STEM skills to enrich the lives of others helps nurture empathy, compassion, and resilience.Teacher, researcher, and consultant Diana Lockwood-Bordaña also provided insight through her focus on helping organizations create pathways for students to succeed in STEM. She advises parents and teachers to better engage students during middle and high school to help them emerge with greater resilience and clearer visions for their futures. Her recommendations include:Offering enrichment activities that connect to real-world issues. Encourage students and their parents to consider STEM after-school clubs, summer camps, or weekend activities to experience hands-on learning. Kids learn best through immersion. Teachers can bring in the real world by creating connections to “hot topics” in the news such as global warming, solar power, ocean pollution, and earthquake-safe buildings. When kids understand what STEM looks like practically, they have a better idea of what it would take to pursue a career in the field.Teach students about role models—in STEM or otherwise. Bring in guest speakers or mentors from the community, especially speakers who are female and from racial backgrounds underrepresented in STEM. This can help students grow up with an understanding of the possibilities that a STEM education can offer them both now and later in their lives. Showing kids examples of what STEM success looks like breaks down barriers. It helps them imagine a workforce without stereotypes of what a scientist or engineer is supposed to look like. Guest speakers, videos, and books are all ways to share stories about people in STEM who are making a difference and create a greater understanding of what success looks like in the field.Evaluate students from an asset-based mindset rather than a deficit-based one. Instead of saying, “This child is a bad math student and needs more practice,” consider how you can provide experiences that develop their strengths: “This child struggles with division, but they really understand multiplication, so, I can use multiplication to teach them division.” An asset-based mindset teaches kids and educators to recognize their strengths and use them to understand new, hard concepts as they are introduced.Temporary loss of confidence is a normal part of growing up, but learning how to dust off and get back up again is critical. Teachers, parents, and other educators should unite to give students opportunities to fail safely and cultivate a resilient mindset through STEM. We all have a role to play in helping the next generation understand that they should not be defined by how others see them, that they have the potential to succeed, and that they can be more than what they are today in many ways.