Fostering youth motivation and persistence: A presentation from the 2014 Masschusetts STEM Summit

By Sarita Pillai

The 2014 Massachusetts STEM Summit: Gateway to the Future was held on October 22nd, in Worcester, MA.  The Summit focused on the “next decade” of STEM innovation in which a thriving STEM education and workforce continuum will continue to help drive economic opportunity and prosperity.  The STELAR center organized a panel at the Summit to highlight findings from the ITEST program related to motivating students to pursue and persist in STEM education and career pathways.  The session titled “Fostering Student Motivation and Achievement: Research to Practice Lessons from the ITEST Program” included presentations from four ITEST projects including:

Carolyn Staudt presented on behalf of the ITSI scale-up project in which middle and high school students participate in in-school activities that are designed to improve standards-based science instruction.  With a focus on guided inquiry, the project is motivating students through self-directed ‘explorations’ of real world problems. This process exposes students to a variety of technologies and enables them to both acquire and apply new knowledge and skills.  In the process, students are asking questions, identifying problems, gathering and analyzing data and designing creative solutions. Teachers, in turn, act as facilitators to promote student responsibility, self-management, sociability, and self-esteem.

David Reider shared lessons learned from Compu-Girls scale-up project which is using digital storytelling and app and game design among other emergent technologies to prepare girls ages 13-18 from the Phoenix high needs district to enter the STEM workforce.  Influential motivators of the program include the fact that the program is for girls only and is designed to foster a safe environment for the girls to fully express themselves and their personal stories through a variety of creative activities.

Jamie Larsen shared the work of the SportsLab project that is using a game-based interactive environment where students ages 12-18 form product design teams to create and submit a concept model and pitch for a sport product design challenge. In the process they explore STEM concepts and careers as well as 21st century skills.  In the SportsLab project, relevant, playful, project-based experiences help students try on their 'future" selves and emphasize to youth there are many STEM career pathways.

Finally, Mike Barnett presented from the Seeding the Future project along with two of his teacher participants,  Russ Anderson (Worcester Technical High School) and Andy Trosello (Waltham High School).  The project is working with low-income schools and students on the use of hydroponics to grow food.  As part of the program, students are testing air quality in their neighborhoods, designing and building hydroponics systems, and collecting real-time data using geospatial tools.  Both Barnett and his teacher participants stressed the importance of not only motivating students with relevant and interesting work but helping them to persist in STEM by identifying and anticipating future barriers to their success.

Collectively, the projects shared some common strategies around youth motivation that underscored the implications of their programs and research for classroom practice.  Each of the projects stressed the importance of rich, technology-based experiences where hands-on, inquiry driven explorations enable students to solve real world problems that matter to them, their families, and their communities.  The projects also emphasized the importance of culturally-relevant STEM content and activities that allow students to make personal connections to STEM as major motivators.  Finally, the panelists all concurred on the important relationship between motivation and persistence.  Building resilience in youth to face the inevitable obstacles they will encounter on their 'STEM journey' involves helping students identify and anticipate barriers and equipping them with the skills and knowledge needed to address challenges as they arise.