Engaging learning situations can encourage more students to pursue STEM career

12 Feb 2016

When providing education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), teachers should pay close attention both to the classroom experience and to the contents of what is taught. New research suggests that this could help increase student interest in studying STEM subjects, particularly among girls.   

The study, conducted within a five-year research project funded by the Academy of Finland, concerns methods with which to develop engaging learning environments. The project (Crafting Optimal Learning in Science Environments), which is also funded by the US National Science Foundation, involves a partnership between Finnish scholars at the Universities of Helsinki and Jyväskylä, Katariina Salmela-Aro and Jari Lavonen, and US scholars Barbara Schneider and Joe Krajcik (Michigan State University).  

The project involved studies on hundreds of upper secondary students in Finland and the US, using smartphone technology to test their engagement and stress levels in physics, chemistry and biology classrooms. The analyses revealed four distinct student profiles: engaged students, engaged but exhausted students, students at risk of burnout, and burnt-out students.  

The findings show that, while girls get better grades than boys in STEM subjects, they seem to have less self-confidence as regards their own abilities. The reason why female students tend not to pursue STEM careers despite their overall school success may be related to social and emotional classroom experiences.  

Girls seem to feel more stressed than boys in science class. Even engagement is not entirely a positive experience: approximately one in four Finnish upper secondary students experience elevated levels of both engagement and burnout at the same time.   

“Engagement is not always a ‘flourishing’ experience; in fact, it can be quite taxing for some students. It’s important that we study both the positive and negative sides of classroom experiences together,” says Professor Katariina Salmela-Aro, one of the project’s researchers.   

There is a need for more research on how to create optimal learning situations. Normally, teachers have not been trained to identify ways to find a balance to engagement, skills and challenges versus stress and anxiety, which are also partly needed in optimal learning. Students feel confident and happy when there is a balance between the challenges they face and their own skillset. Research is needed to shed more light on what kinds of situational elements influence whether students see challenges as mainly engaging or taxing.  

“Optimal learning situations also include challenges. Students require suitable challenges to become interested in a given subject. Overcoming challenges, then, can further increase engagement and interest in STEM subjects. At present, we’re particularly interested in studying how to increase student engagement through project-based STEM education,” Salmela-Aro explains.  

In project-based learning, students act like professional researchers.  

“Research has shown that students are unable to learn the concepts used in STEM subjects without committing to established STEM practices. However, students can’t learn the practices without first learning the concepts. The learning requires problem-solving, decision-making, explaining real-world phenomena and making connections between new and old concepts and principles,” explains Professor Jari Lavonen, who is also working on the project.   

The results of the 2012 PISA survey showed that less than 70 per cent of 15-year-old Finnish students reported being happy at school. This put Finland in 60th place among the 65 countries surveyed. A number of other studies have also pointed to an increasing amount of negativity among Finnish schoolchildren, such as feelings of inadequacy, exhaustion and cynicism.  

According to a 2015 OECD report, Finnish students score lower than average on motivation and interest in STEM fields. A recent PISA study (OECD 2016) also revealed a big gap between immigrant and native students in OECD countries – the gap being largest in Finland.   

More information:  

Read more about the research on the website of Michigan State University   

Article reference:  

Katariina Salmela-Aro et al.: Integrating the light and the dark sides of student engagement using person-oriented and situation-specific approaches, Learning and Instruction (2016),  

Barbara Schneider et al.: Investigating Optimal Learning Moments in U.S. and Finnish Science Class. Journal of Research in Science Teaching (2015),  

Academy of Finland Communications
Tuula Toivio
Communications Specialist
tel. +358 295 335 156

Last modified 12 Feb 2016
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