I believe that digital learning has great potential to close the diversity gap in STEM education and careers, and give traditionally underrepresented students more motivation and opportunities to succeed in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Digital resources, especially free ones, can deliver on the promise of equity by getting quality content to more students—anywhere, any time. While schools are making progress toward providing equal access to technology, equal access and professional development alone do not guarantee that students of all backgrounds have equal opportunities to learn.
The promise of technology also depends on quality instructional content that considers the best ways to reach underrepresented students. My team has spent the last four years developing, delivering, and measuring the impact of digital resources to help STEM teachers better engage students of all backgrounds.
When we started, our first question was, “What does good look like?” We researched the best practices to engage and motivate students in STEM, especially underrepresented students. Here’s what we learned along the way that should be considered in designing digital STEM content for all students:
- Help students see STEM as useful. According to multiple studies, STEM “usefulness” is a powerful motivator for all students. In fact, in our recent study nine out of ten students, most of whom were from underrepresented populations, wanted to understand why they were learning about a particular topic, and eight out of ten students said they were motivated to learn when they could solve real-world problems.
- Make all students feel welcome. We found that underrepresented students need to see more role models to feel welcome in STEM majors and professions. Digital content should help them see that people like them work in STEM, in collaborative environments where all opinions and ideas are valued.
- Let students try out STEM skills on real problems. Research confirms that project and problem-based learning better engages all students in the classroom. Students sharpen their skills, discover career interests, and understand what professionalism looks like in different workplaces.
- Don’t save the case study for college. We found that case study challenges can be one of the best ways to bring the inquiry-based experiences that prepare students for postsecondary success into the classroom. Case study challenges let students apply course content in a meaningful context, deepen their understanding of what they are learning, strengthen their problem-solving skills, and remember the subject matter more easily.
- Align to curriculum and shape an active role for the teacher. Digital content should complement the curriculum and the teacher’s role in the classroom, with a focus on interactive content teachers can connect to the curriculum. According to Mayer’s Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning, digital (multimedia) instruction is most effective when content and format actively engage learners in applying what they have learned
We developed the digital resource Spark 101 Interactive STEM Videos to help teachers engage all students in real-world challenges, while connecting curriculum and standards to deeper learning resources for STEM problem solving.
This free online resource allows STEM teachers to choose from more than 50 interactive challenge videos that are aligned with course content and feature STEM professionals. As students work through the challenges, they use their knowledge and skills in ways that prepare them for real life. In the process, they also identify careers that might be right for them.
And the fact that we designed Spark 101 on a digital platform—and made it available to teachers and students at no cost— has allowed us to scale quality content from STEM employers and teachers to more than 150,000 students a year, including students in rural and low-income schools.
Our October 2015 evaluations demonstrated that Spark 101 helped students of all backgrounds become more motivated to engage in STEM coursework and explore related careers. And teacher surveys showed that students became better problem solvers, better prepared for the future, and more engaged in schoolwork. Of the students who completed pre/post surveys, approximately 70 percent were members of groups that are traditionally underrepresented in STEM pathways (African American and Hispanic students), and about 50 percent were female. Here are a few highlights from the evaluation:
- With the exception of students already strongly engaged in STEM, all students improved their awareness and understanding of how STEM relates to their lives, and they planned to take more STEM courses.
- Half of the students who initially did not agree STEM was relevant to their lives now agreed or strongly agreed.
- One third of the students who did not initially plan to take more STEM courses now planned to take four years of math and science.
Digital learning can help more students reach their full potential to succeed in professional pathways—but we must align our digital tools with content that resonates with all students.