Last summer, I worked at a popular tutoring center doing something I love — teaching math to elementary school aged children — and I absolutely hated it. Let me explain.
This particular tutoring company sought to accelerate students in school by pushing them through monotonous worksheets, consistently prizing rote memorization and speed above actual understanding. When I worked with students on multiplication tables, I knew my job was simply to scold them whenever they strayed from the task at hand. If they didn’t actually understand what multiplying two numbers together meant, well, that wasn’t considered as important. At ages as young as seven, many of the students had already decided that they hated their visits to the center and, by extension, math in general. Even more concerning, I began to notice that oftentimes the girls were most disengaged and complained the most when their parents dropped them off.
Near the end of the summer, I decided to conduct some online research around how different teaching methods affect girls and boys’ interest in STEM subjects differently. I discovered that girls are generally most excited about STEM when they are participating in group projects with real world applications and interdisciplinary elements. Research also reveals that a focus on the deeper “whys” as opposed to rote memorization can have similarly positive effects. No wonder many of the girls (and boys!) I tutored counted down the minutes until they could stop staring at their lengthy and superficial worksheets. I could also envision many of them later choosing to drop STEM subjects in college without realizing how truly engaging STEM could be.
This past spring, I had the opportunity to tutor once again at a local elementary school’s STEM after school program. In this program, we taught the students about the importance of structural stability in earthquakes by instructing them to build houses from toothpicks and marshmallows on top of Jello cups. After reading about storms, we encouraged students to get artistic as they designed and created their own windsocks. We also tried to stimulate a willingness to ask questions and were pleasantly surprised by questions like “Why electrons don’t fall into the nucleus if they’re so attracted to the positively charged protons?”
The differences between the two groups of students, the one at the tutoring center and the one at the after school program, were astronomical. When the teacher announced that “the high school students are here!” we were always greeted with loud cheers and hugs instead of the groans and yawns I had experienced at the tutoring center. If a parent arrived early to pick their child up, the child would often beg for a few more minutes to finish up the homemade battery they were working on. Because of the diverse array of hands on activities, even the quietest of students remained engaged. Most importantly, when we went around in a circle and asked each student what their favorite subject was, the vast majority enthusiastically replied with either math or science. I did not observe any differences in confidence or excitement based on gender.
Many educators do a great job of including real world applications and interdisciplinary connections, like the ones I incorporated in the after school program, in their curricula. However, I have also learned from many teachers who focus too much on how to accelerate students the fastest and influence them to achieve the most at the expense of stimulating actual interest. After all, it doesn’t matter how proficient a child is at a subject if they vow to never touch it again after twelfth grade. To put it simply, if we want to keep girls interested in STEM, we need more hands-on projects and less worksheets.