The new STEM (Science, Technology and Math) Discovery Lab at the University of New Hampshire Manchester is certainly not a traditional classroom.
“It’s just as much about the environment in the classroom as it is the actual activity that’s going to be used,” said UNH education professor Lauren Provost, who teaches a course at the Discovery Lab.
The effort to get students interested in STEM fields isn’t a new one. The country is lacking in this area. Just in New Hampshire alone, STEM fields are expected to grow by about 17 percent between 2010 and 2020, while the entire slate of industry in New Hampshire will grow by about 10 percent, according to a state report released earlier this year.
It’s an issue that has reached the Senate chamber in Washington, D.C., where Sen. Jeanne Shaheen has been pushing for investments in STEM education. Last month, she cited a grant received by Pelham High School’s robotics team as an example of the kinds of incentives that push schools and districts to invest in STEM education.
The lab, which opened this fall, creates a hands-on learning community where K-12 students and teachers can engage in science, technology, engineering and mathematics and language arts through a research-based curriculum. The lab is part of the larger university system initiative to double the number of STEM graduates by 2025. Developers have created STEM activities that focus on a culture that makes sense in a societal framework.
Each week, fourth-graders from the Mill Falls Charter School in Manchester are learning about “worms in space,” in which students are conducting experiments with worms and butterflies and comparing their results to the NASA scientists’ findings. Fifth-graders from the Beech Street School are working on video game development. About 50 kids from the Hillside Middle School are examining the mathematics behind texting. Nick Soggu, founder and CEO of Silvertech in Manchester, will be teaching a new engineering program for high school students, and the lab is also hosting a program centered on video game development for high schoolers.
“It helps form a connection,” Provost said. “[Students see that], ‘This actually matters to me.’”
With Manchester in particular, and New Hampshire as a whole, experiencing growth in technical fields, the local economy needs more workers who are trained in STEM areas. Businesses have seen the need, and they’re looking to beef up their supply of workers. Companies like Dyn and Silvertech have taken an interest in education in the state and the city. Tom Kuegler, CEO of Wasabi Ventures, a venture capital firm and incubator, is hosting an entrepreneurial boot camp in January in which high school students will work on developing technology ideas and ultimately turning them into businesses.
STEM starts at home
Somehow, American culture developed an acceptance — one that is unique to this country — that people are comfortable admitting their mathematics shortcomings, said Susan D’Agostino, a professor of mathematics at Southern New Hampshire University.
“Kids pick up on that, and that’s a problem,” D’Agostino said. “Parents have to stop saying [they can’t do math].”
Getting kids more interested in science and math starts at home. There are plenty of opportunities for parents to engage their kids in math, science and technology. Take them to the Children’s Museum of New Hampshire, the SEE Science Center or the Museum of Science in Boston. Parents shouldn’t be afraid to try out activities where they feel a little uncomfortable with the subject matter.
“If your child sees you’re willing to tolerate being a little uncomfortable, but then sees you develop an understanding, that’s very satisfying,” D’Agostino said.
Take advantage of kids’ interest in technology. Instead of just letting kids use the iPad to play video games, look into math and science applications they can experiment with, D’Agostino said.
“It’s about curiosity and creativity,” D’Agostino said. “Every parent has the right idea about that, and they’re more than happy to foster that curiosity and creativity in athletics and the arts, but they need to bring it over to math and science too.”
A different classroom culture
In the classroom, getting kids interested takes a different approach. For one, classroom cultures must eliminate gender rejections. Provost said students need role models who they can identify with, whether that’s female students having female STEM role models or classroom models that support socioeconomic and ethnic diversity in STEM.
“We need to show students that STEM content is accessible to everyone,” Provost said.
One of the Discovery Lab courses is all elementary school girls.
“That’s not common in STEM,” said Sarah Jacobs, the operations manager in UNH Manchester’s dean’s office. “It’s dynamic. It’s really fantastic. All these young girls are curious and inquisitive, they’re raising their hands constantly. It’s not a competition. They’re just having a blast and they’re running with it.”
Mathematics is often taught, unintentionally, in a way that works well for risk takers. For other students, that can be intimidating, Provost said.
“Students can have anxiety toward math and science,” Provost said. “There is definitely culture of the classroom that is focused on testing and less on building a community of learners who can be respectful of each other and build knowledge.”
The idea behind the lab is to support and enhance students’ education, not to replace anything. Looking ahead, the vision for the lab is still being defined, Jacobs said.