More Creative Approaches to Math Instruction Needed

Can teens get more interested in STEM topics?

A survey of 16- to 18-year-olds suggested that teaching out of the box, more use of humor, pushing fun science projects and competitions and relating math to real-life activities would go along way toward achieving that goal.

The survey was run by the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM), which drew 1,557 responses from high school students across the country to learn what they thought would increase student interest and participation in science, technology, engineering and math subjects. All of the young people participated in this year's MathWorks Math Modeling (M3) Challenge, a national online contest organized by SIAM and sponsored by math and modeling software company MathWorks.

Almost six in 10 respondents (57 percent) suggested that the best way to draw more students into STEM was to use "out-of-the-box, creative" instructional practices and to promote involvement in science-related projects and competitions. Almost half (49 percent) recommended making STEM "relatable to real life." A third (34.5 percent) advised adding more technology into the classroom; and a similarly high number (32 percent) counseled the addition of humor, whether through videos or projects.

Teachers could do their part, the students stated, by providing more one-on-one help (mentioned by 34 percent of survey participants) and explaining math problems using real-life examples (28 percent).

A quarter of students said government could boost STEM through support of competitions and various projects.

But the students too recognized that they play a role in the effort. For example, a quarter of respondents reported that one of the biggest misconceptions of math maintained by students is that it's "not applicable to real life." A similar number said a lack of motivation keeps young people from excelling in math. The most common problems they face when trying to solve math problems is not having the conceptual understanding they need for the work (cited by 44 percent) or introducing "careless errors," such as writing or entering wrong information or not following directions (37 percent).

The most common route to improving math skills, mentioned by 40 percent of participants: asking for help — whether from teachers, other students or parents.

This year's math challenge — which asked students to find solutions to the spread of substance abuse in America — drew participation from more than 4,000 students on 877 teams. The six finalist teams — from Glendale, WI; Lincolnshire, IL; Lincroft, NJ; Nashua, NH; Plymouth, MN; and Rockville, MD — were chosen by a national panel of Ph.D.-level mathematicians and will participate in the final presentations and awards event in New York City next week.

"These findings provide useful insight about delivering STEM-related information to a generation of tech and social media-savvy students in a way that may not only increase their interest, but their skills and perseverance as well," said Michelle Montgomery, M3 Challenge project director at SIAM, in a statement. "STEM isn't normally associated with humor and frivolity, but the results suggest that non-traditional teaching methods would resonate better with today's students, who — thanks to social media and apps such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube — have grown accustomed to more creative, entertaining and technological ways of sharing information."

Further details can be found on the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics' site here.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal and Campus Technology. She can be reached at dian@dischaffhauser.com or on Twitter @schaffhauser.