How to Encourage STEM With Student Input and Phenomenon-Based Learning

student input
(Image credit: Image by felixioncool from Pixabay)

Peter J. Smith’s advice for educators looking to encourage interest in STEM and CTE career pathways is simple: listen to students. 

“One of the reasons why we formed some of the classes that we did is interest from our students,” says Smith, a science teacher and AVID Program Coordinator at Baldwin Park High School in California. “Getting their feedback and making it something that they feel is a benefit, is a big help.” 

Baldwin Park High School provides a wide range of STEM classes that are tailored to current student interests as much as possible. These include classes in forensic biology and horticulture, and multiple career pathways for students including medical, engineering, and computer-related ones. 

The school also gives its students access to the STEM Career Coalition, which is brought to schools by Discovery Education and provides access to STEM and CTE resources that let them explore modern manufacturing and other career STEM opportunities. 

Smith shares advice for ways that schools can jumpstart their STEM programs. 

Constantly Seek Student Input  

Student input helped lead the school to offer a medical pathway. During the pandemic, interest in healthcare has surged, including the potential pursuit of doctorates and other careers within the field, with many students considering becoming medical techs. 

Student interest in the environment, sustainability, and the ways technology might help the planet in the future is also growing, Smith says. This affinity for the environment helped fuel the horticulture class. While a highly popular forensics class was started by a teacher, it was the students' passion for it – and its true crime connections – that has kept it going. 

Gauging student interest is an ongoing process, with surveys at the beginning and end of each semester. “We're asking three times a year, 'What areas did we cover that you enjoyed?' 'What areas do you still want to see?'” Smith says. 

Students are also polled on which topics they don’t like. “That gives us time to adjust our second-semester group curriculum if need be. Obviously, there are standards that have to be met, you can't just eliminate something because nobody likes that subject area,” he says. 

This ongoing student feedback continues to lead to new class offerings. “Biotech has become very popular with the rise of the vaccines and all that kind of stuff that you hear about in the news,” Smith says. “I would say, probably, about 35-45% of the student body is actually asking questions in class regarding biotechnology. So that's something that's now on our radar to keep a closer eye on.” 

Phenomenon-Based Learning and Student Buy In  

When feedback reveals that students are not enjoying a subject that still needs to be met to meet standards, teachers still take the negative feedback on that topic into consideration. “We can look for ways of adding in other components to it,” Smith says. “We can look for ways of trying to make it more exciting and enticing.” 

One strategy for doing this that Smith found effective is phenomenon-based learning. “It's looking for things that demonstrate exactly the concept you're trying to teach,” he says. “So for photosynthesis, phenomena would be the sea slug that eats algae and then eventually started photosynthesizing. Or the plants that get no water, but when water comes spring back to life.” 

In one class, Smith recently explained to students that most of the oxygen they breathe is generated in the ocean. “They get blown away by some of that kind of stuff, and then you've got their interest. Now you can keep bringing them in and you can load other things in and you throw other phenomena at them,” he says. 

Engaging lessons and listening to student voice can lead to student buy-in, which ultimately pays dividends. 

“Once you get the student buy-in, you tend to get a lot of progress, they get very involved. They want to form clubs, they want to do more action with it. And when the students are doing the action, then it becomes powerful,” Smith says. 

Erik Ofgang

Erik Ofgang is a Tech & Learning contributor. A journalist, author and educator, his work has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Smithsonian, The Atlantic, and Associated Press. He currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. While a staff writer at Connecticut Magazine he won a Society of Professional Journalism Award for his education reporting. He is interested in how humans learn and how technology can make that more effective.