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Fostering STEM learning: A critical need (post pandemic)

By Rebecca Meyer

4-H youth at the 2022 Engineering Design Challenge Showcase
The world is facing a shortage of professionals to enter into the STEM workforce, but our young people are also racing to catch up to the necessary skills and capabilities they need to fulfill this shortage. Earlier this fall the Minnesota Department of Education reported that students in Minnesota are not performing at expected levels, as test scores for reading and science dipped while math recorded a small increase. But the slight increase in math scores is still overall lower than pre-pandemic results. Minnesota is not alone in this. This trend in test scores is similar across the United States. 

While regaining content knowledge and skills are needed, interpersonal skills are also important. 4-H and other non-formal youth organizations have critical roles to play in engaging young people in high quality experiences that both build key content knowledge and skills and help them regain key aptitudes. They are also uniquely positioned to strengthen meaningful interpersonal skills essential to the teamwork and community engagement of science and engineering. Sentiments of the National Research Council from 2009 have never rang so true: “...the reality is that schools cannot act alone, and society must better understand and draw on the full range of science learning experiences to improve science education broadly.”

An important question that we all need to be asking is: How? Recent articles suggest that we can foster STEM learning with youth through building a sense of belonging, identity and motivation. Minnesota 4-H is focused on Engineering Design and Plant Sciences where we are designing and delivering these programs with these elements in mind. We are:
  • Connecting STEM with subjects that 4-H youth care about like agricultural and natural resources and using challenges and problem solving to increase motivation;
  • Involving STEM professionals and students as adult leaders and “judges” to help young people see scientists and engineers as fellow community members and develop positive STEM identities;
  • Linking our programming to real world issues and professional opportunities that help to increase motivations; and
  • Integrating STEM learning and teamwork in ways that increase belonging and build interpersonal skills.

I have spent many years in Minnesota 4-H working with colleagues and teams focusing on intentional program design. In our current circumstances, it is more important than ever that we thoughtfully create programming to strengthen content understanding and interpersonal skills. It turns out that it's essential that we focus on designing programs in a way that sustains and builds motivation and a sense of belonging as a way to encourage young people in learning content and interpersonal skills.

What are other tactics that you are using in your programming?

-- Rebecca Meyer, Extension educator

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