How Can We Get Students Interested in Math and Science?


The school year has started again. The high school in my neighborhood is bustling with activity again. The marching band practices on the parking lot early in the morning. Cars with teenage drivers converge on the school. 

High school is interesting, because it is the first time that students have the chance to start picking their own classes. They have the change to determine the difficulty of the classes they want to take and they have some flexibility in the number of classes that they take in different subject areas.

This flexibility is particularly important when it comes to math and science classes.  It is generally agreed that the STEM disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) are important for the economy.  Students trained in these subjects go on to earn high salaries and to contribute to the growth of new businesses.

Yet, many students decide not to pursue difficult science and math classes in high school. These early choices have a lasting influence, because when these students go to college, they continue to stay away from science and math.

What can be done to get students to take more science and math?

One possibility would be to try to convince students that science and math are fun. Certainly, there are many people who find a lot of intrinsic enjoyment in solving math problems and in pursuing new knowledge through science. And according to psychologist Jacquelynne Eccles, students will gravitate toward classes that they enjoy.

The problem is that it can be difficult to convince a student who has not enjoyed math and science classes in the past that math and science are actually fun. And anyone who has tried to push a teenager to do something that he or she does not want to do knows how difficult that can be.

Written By: Art Markman, Ph.D.
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  1. It would help if we didn’t have an education system predicated on the notion that children are to be molded into factory assembly line workers and soldiers.

    I’m a fan of the Industrial Revolution but it happened over 100 years ago. Perhaps an update of the systems that were created to support it would be in order.

  2. I went through public school and when they said it was fun, it was never fun. Kids will never believe that if you tell them that. Also, with the pitiful funding (few and ancient supplies) and limited time, you usually don’t get into projects that are very elaborate or have practical application.
    If you want kids interested, don’t say it’s fun, show them it’s fun. Kids need to be shown that knowledge is power. (Not just tell them that because they’ll think you’re corny and not believe you); show them how much better equipped they are in the world with this knowledge. 

    Instead they teach “Columbus sailed the ocean blue back in 1492”. The material and texts used are about as appealing and fresh as the cafeteria food.

  3. As soon as an adult tells a kid something is fun the kid knows it will not be fun.  Tell them it will earn them the big bucks, that will make their ears prick up.

  4. I was fortunate to have a science teacher in grade 9 who didn’t
    say it is so because the text book said so. He made science fun and interesting
    for all in our class. He loved to experiment and showed us how and why by demonstrating
    in some creative way with examples in layman terms if needed. However, I learned more about science watching David Suzuki  (one of my favourite atheists and nominated as one of the top 10 “Greatest Canadians” by viewers of the CBC) on The Nature of Things during the 1960’s and 70’s. Unfortunately I had a very abusive math teacher that distracted me from learning hence  one of the reasons I ended up lousy at math.

  5. I sent my son to Winchester college where he got an A in A level maths at 16.
    If any college wants to upgrade the exam success of their pupils ; then Winchester college provides a long term working
    model of academic success.
    Some maths and science teachers possess a communication charisma which stimulates enthusiasm into their pupils.
    There was a film made some time ago(a film of real events) in which some Hispanic American with a talent for maths
    taught a class of down at the bottom Hispanic kids and tutored them to examination glory.
    If he had done this in the UK he old have been knighted.
    If anyone on this blog has seen this film I would like to know what it is called; in order to watch it again.

  6. How can we get students to take more science and
    math? Easy, just get good teachers.

    Unfortunately, as a step in the a career path
    there are better ways to make big bucks.

    The reason is that maths and science are just not
    taken seriously at the board-level within most professions. Where
    presentation is more important than content. correction, presentation
    is ‘perceived’ as being more important.

    One would think that everyone in banking would
    have at least a maths degree, or that every manufacturing company
    would be run by graduate engineers. Instead they are run by
    accountants who cannot understand maths beyond the basics and have
    never got their hands dirty. I am currently slumming in a warehouse,
    where that management are incapable of grasping basic logistics. but
    they are experts in shifting the blame to someone else when things go

  7. Not to disparage the “arts” courses, but I try to explain how much fun STEM courses are as follows:   History (a passion of mine) is about stuff that already happened.  Nothing new there.  Languages (another passion of mine) are pretty much settled.  A new word added now and then, but that is all.  German may be new to you, but it is old hat to people in Germany.  But in Science (Biology, Anatomy, Physics, Math) there are new discoveries every week.  These are always advancing.  You could be the first person to ever discover something.  How exciting would it be to have your name on something where you were the first person to see it or  describe it !  Think of all the names of scientists who we remember because they were the first to describe it  !  As for the Math courses (Arithmetic, Algebra, Calculus, Geometry, Trig) you need those to be able to tell when you find something that it IS new.  And last but not least, you need math to count your change when you buy stuff, and monitor your bank account.

    I wish I were a science teacher in public or high school.  My kids would look forward to every single day, if I could arrange that.  If the teacher has passion for his/her subject, it rubs off.

  8. The best way to be interested in something is to be competent in a subject. Another way is to be a parent that values and informally talks up these subjects to the point that the kid knows they will get praised for taking these classes. How many people become doctors and lawyers because their parents put on pressure? Kids know a parents expectations whether they are verbalized or not.  A dynamic teacher also helps. Without all of this, you need to require the credits in a high school course just like you would require a child to practice the piano or violin. After time, they thank you for giving them discipline. School districts need to up their minimum requirements for math and science. When I went through school one science class was required for graduation- that’s it. Now two science classes are required. Maybe there should be three and the option for the child to audit the class pass/fail after a certain number of credits are reached. Although my science teacher was competent, he had a smart ass attitude and graded spelling. With many new words being introduced, my A grade was brought down to a B. I looked around and saw no other females in science, and gave up. (Not to mention I was really into science as a kid…I had a microscope, collected rocks…very geeky.) I wonder what would have happened if I was required to take three science classes?

    We can ask what can we do to make these subjects more appealing like making broccoli more edible, but tastes change over time. Someone who hates broccoli as a kid may love it when they get older. Unfortunately, we cannot plug information in our head and gain knowledge instantly like digesting food. It needs to be built over time. We need to expose kids to math and science when they are in school. If an adult decides to change careers and needs math and science, it is much more difficult if they do not have the proper foundation from early on. Schools need to quit shortchanging people by catering to mediocre standards. Up the standards and children and adults will have more options.

    By the way the logo reads as moth and science. I thought this would be about insects.

  9. You’ve got to appeal to what kids of the relevant age find interesting. (Sex springs to mind.)

    I always thought maths aversion was a female thing. But I have a teenager who isn’t that interested in maths. He’s not bad at maths, just not as good as he would be if he found it in any way interesting. He’s reasonably interested in science though. Just prefers the excitement of explanations to the mundane aspects of numerical manipulation.Lots of fun stuff happens in schools. At very least that’s inevitable when you put a bunch of kids in a situation together where a handful of adults attempt to organise them and influence their behaviour. The kids will have fun with or without the influence of the adults. The only question is whether they’ll learn anything while they’re having fun. If you remove the adults then a certain amount of learning will occur. The question is whether adding in the adults makes any real long term difference?If left alone, kids will tend to learn stuff. It’s less clear what will happen as a result of various interventions by adults, driven by various educational theories – mostly established several or more centuries ago, in the absence of scientific evidence and in the absence of leaving things to run their natural course.From an evolutionary perspective, when juvenile social mammals have ‘fun’ then they are learning something important. That’s more or less the purpose of fun and why most mammals instinctively seek to have fun and play. Other kinds of animals don’t do this. Primates, specifically humans, have developed this into the basis of their lifestyle.I think you nailed it when you mentioned:  “It is generally agreed that the STEM disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) are important for the economy.  Students trained in these subjects go on to earn high salaries and to contribute to the growth of new businesses.”First off, few kids have any idea about the relevance of high salaries or business growth/stagnation etc. You can’t just feed kids a syllabus or some socially desirable outcome. People only learn what they’re interested in. A good teacher cannot insert knowledge and skill into the mind of a student. Teachers required not only the skills and knowledge of the relevant field but the skills to spark interest in the individual student, plus a deep knowledge of the learning processes and the many and various defects, strengths, and weaknesses and mitigation approaches that they are likely to be manifest in the minds of various people at various times.Students, at least good students, by definition, study things. Including the veracity of statements made by various leaders, teachers, and parents. (About the only info they’ll accept uncritically is the social proof and conformity tendencies of their peers.) Where there’s disconnect, an anomaly, naked emperors etc. this has the potential to stimulate further interest. The cause of the anomaly needs to be assessed as of importance or to be ignored as part of the background noise and insanity. Telling them that something is important is irrelevant. They have to actually know it’s important. And they won’t know anything just because someone tells them. They have to find out for themselves, or resort to the default option of conforming to whatever their peers are doing.E.g. You might tell kids that smoking causes heart disease and lung cancer. But the reality is the very few smokers really suffer these consequences. Same for dangerous driving, drugs, and alcohol. Most of them will do it and will get away unscathed. You have to actually proved truthful information. The real risks, plus the real reasons whey kids are prone to taking those risks. Once people become aware of how their mind works then it’s defects lose a lot of their impact.The first thing to note is that the most financially secure, powerful, and wealthy in our communities tend to have very little connection with science, technology, and engineering. Yes, these people may earn reasonably good salaries, but they didn’t get there by mastering maths and physics. A reasonable intelligence combined with the predisposition to violence and aggressively dominant and manipulative behaviour is ultimately the best paid professional characteristic. Those who are paying high salaries, in return for expected results, are earning very much higher salaries and tend to be contributing to the growth of old business while suppressing new businesses. (The opposite of what is ostensibly valued.)The problem with stimulating interest in maths and science is that the path to real success is quite clearly in the opposite direction. E.g. sports heroism, aggression, public officialdom, public service corruption, ‘legal’ crime (E.g. financial planning, stock-broking, banking), choosing the right parents, having a hot body and marrying the right rich psychopath.Perhaps the way forward is to employ maths and science as a means of understanding how the world really works and to enable kids to focus on their true interests independently of their instinctive desire for status and recognition. E.g. Perhaps a maths class could focus on analysing the prevalence and benefits of psychopathy in typical populations or estimating wealth of some random high profile political figure. Estimate that person’s lifetime income, expenses, taxation, etc. and find out exactly how they acquired their personal fortune. All this is basic arithmetic, no calculus required. (Perhaps add in some statistics affecting estimates.) Plus historical media analysis. E.g. Noting the various enquiries that were suppressed, the tax audits that were suddenly aborted, the trial acquittals, and the witnesses who disappeared or suddenly refused to testify. i.e. inject some reality into math and science class. Then the students might appreciate the value of working the numbers.Al Capone, a famous American serial killer and crime boss, was never charged with murder, but was finally brought down by tax auditors. If not he may have eventually become president of the USA. (He was just ahead of his time, recent presidents have been more subtle in the early careers – excellent students of political reality.) Working the numbers might not be as glamorous as being Batman or some other action hero, but it gets the same result eventually. And even Batman is known as the only superhero who lacks a super power. A glimmer of hope is that the latest Batman movie is apparently reasonably good. A bit of maths, physics, and physiology also wouldn’t hurt regarding the average kid’s interest in building up muscle and getting in shape, and perhaps attracting that hot female body that otherwise would end up marrying the rich psychopath.

  10. Recent experience (above) also indicates that the subject of English, including the ability to write readable prose and to format text in blogs, may also be a useful skill kids could eventually be interested in.
    The default option like twitter, of just limiting the output so that emissions are less appalling, seem to be effective, but missing the point.

  11. That was Jaime Escalante. There was a movie made of his successful teaching of math(s) including calculus to his high school students at Garfield High in East Los Angeles. The movie is called “Stand and Deliver”. See

  12. I’m with ‘sbooder’; my kids faffed around with airy-fairy crap until they actually listened to what I was telling them. 
    All 3 went to college & studied enough STEP to get Diplomas, then went into engineering design. Now they all out-earn all their school friends and are highly delighted. 
    Never mind “vocation”, its all about the MONEY!! 

  13. I encouraged my daughter, who has nearly completed this stage of her education, to do what she enjoys.  There is no point attempting to shoe-horn kids into subjects if the result is that they become demotivated.

    “The problem is that it can be difficult to convince a student who has
    not enjoyed math and science classes in the past that math and science
    are actually fun.”

    There you go, problem solved.  We need to start earlier.

  14. Perhaps the greatest hurdle in the US is the prevailing negative attitude that many Americans have toward STEM disciplines. Too many adults express fear, distrust, even disdain toward these subjects. This is mirrored and amplified in television from a passing reaction in a situation comedy to talk show hosts joking about how poorly they did in science or math at school to win over an audience. More harmful than this are what we hear from elected officials and the network of supporting supporting talking heads, and many heads of religious congregations who regularly politicize their sermons. We have here, in America, people who regularly consult horoscopes and call psychics to guide them through their lives, museums that show dinosaurs and humans coexisting in a world just over 6,000 years old, elected representatives who politicize real scientific problems for political gainS and it goes on. School Boards decisions make important decisions about what is taught in our schools and which text books teachers must use as their primary source. Yet these boards are comprised of people who aren’t scholars in the subjects they oversee.

    Teachers are very important, but the curriculum must be up to snuff.

  15. “ALARM! ALARM! DIVE ZE BOAT! DESTROYER ON ZE PORT BOW!” (please forgive me)

    “Take us down to zwanzig metres Leutnant!”

    “Ja Herr Kaleu!”

    A bit of mild peril would focus their attention and is a bit more interesting than train (a) sets off at whatever o’clock, instead you have the same course, speed and interception problems but with submarines and torpedo’s.
    I hated trigonometry at school, at the time I thought “who wants to know at any point in their life the hypotenuse of a football field?” It wasn’t until I failed an engineering degree that I found out that trig doesn’t just have to be used for distances, you can sling volts, newtons, velocity, pretty much anything you want ( slight exaggeration ) into what turns out to be a very interesting and extremely useful equation where I couldn’t have been more wrong.

    The point being, I actually enjoyed learning trig because it was combined with Newton’s four speed and acceleration equations where the result mattered. As for submarines I was recently playing a WWII sub simulator on the pc and I was indecently pleased with myself when I found that I could use what I had learned in class to intercept and sink lots and lots of ships. I was especially smug when I reduced a bulky equation that told me exactly when to FIRE ZE TORPEDO! LOS! The result for anyone still reading was the inverse tan of the speed in m/s of the target, over the speed in m/s of the torpedo, which gave me the angle to point the periscope to. ( If you want to hit the ship as it crosses 000 degrees in front of you, you have to FIRE ZE TORPEDO! LOS! before it crosses 000 degrees to allow for the travel time of your torpedo )This was helpful because it removed the need for me to know exactly how far away the target was, the angle will be the same for any distance as long as I am at 90 degrees, all I needed to input into the equation was the targets speed and the speed of my torpedo, chufty. I was a little less smug when I later figured out that that was what that little dial was all about in the bottom corner of the screen, but I definitely enjoyed figuring it all out and I sank a lot more ships too! Fascinated, aren’t you.
    Boiling it down, maths got a lot more interesting for me when it had a purpose, basic engineering principles gave obscure mathematical nonsense a new meaning. When a student asks why they have to learn algebra they get told “Because it’s on the exam.” when they should be told how algebra is used in electronics and is vital in working out currents or forces in equilibrium. ( better examples welcome ) I truly believe if I had been exposed to more of the maths I used in engineering while I was still at school I might have actually enjoyed going.

    Alternatively, tell the class “Next week we are going to play computer games!” and see their wretched faces light up with unbridled glee and hope for the future.

    ( BTW, I got my only grade A downgraded to a B too QK. Thank you very much dual award curriculum )

    ( Edit #2, How about history classes spend a term or two on science history that tells the where’s, why’s and how’s similar to what Bill Bryson manages to do in his marvelous book. Apart from being genuinely interesting I felt that after finishing that book I had a better understanding of the order of our discoveries and what had to be achieved by a previous generation or culture in order for the next discovery, or even the question, to be possible. I felt like I could understand step by step what drove the people of their time in each endeavour that they undertook. Plus, after that broadcast live to the world lesson on the industrial revolution they can probably bump it off the curriculum. )

  16. I remember when a fellow high school student complained to our geometry teacher, “Why do we have to learn this?” 
    “Geometry arose out of a need to measure things,” he answered, together with a couple other examples I don’t recall. I do remember most teacher getting exasperated with that question, reacting similarly as to “Is this going to be on the test?” In my mind though, if you can’t answer that–if you don’t enjoy answering that question–you shouldn’t be teaching the subject. I think a very simple survey could be done, comparing how simply listing the uses of math/science knowledge influences students’ interest in pursuing them.

  17. Prenatal and childhood nutrition. I’m not saying it’s a panacea but it seems to me that diet/environment is part of the equation. But yes, making learning fun is important. One of the best teachers I had was a chemistry teacher (Mr. Underwood) in high school. In retrospect, he was very Feynman-like I suppose. He used to set up various “bombs” (some loud, some smelly) around the classroom when we took exams. He explained it was his way to payback those times when we were noisy as he tried to teach. I also remember he once told us soft drink makers put phosphoric acid in their colas to make us thirsty so we would then buy more cola to drink. He made chemistry relevant and fun for teenagers. I’m not a chemist but I’ve never lost my appreciation for the field in large part due to him.


  18. rod-the-farmer

    I wish I were a science teacher in public or high school.  My kids would look forward to every single day, if I could arrange that.  If the teacher has passion for his/her subject, it rubs off.

    You have identified one of the main problems here.  There is a shortage of good scientists and teaching is often poorly regarded and under-paid compared to alternative employments.

    The consequence of this is that much science is taught by people who are under-qualified and lacking knowledge and experience of the curriculum material, often in unsuitable buildings while lacking resources.

    Nutty textbooks committees and politicians arranging priorities and staff appointments, do nothing to help this situation in the US. 
    In the UK we have a “National Curriculum” which lists what content must be covered, but methods, books and materials are usually decided at school level by the teaching staff. The OFSTED Inspection system will however, require improvements if there are omissions or poor standards of teaching. – Schools that failed to make required improvements within a reasonable time, have been closed!

    Science requires a systematic building up of  experimental and mathematical skills.  Badly taught missing pieces inhibit further progress to higher levels of understanding.

  19.  Yes, although unfortunately the more prominent blue circular background at first glance makes it appear to read “Moth”. At least to me.

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