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How Teachers Build Confidence to Motivate Middle Schoolers in STEM

Middle schoolers embody a messy no-man’s land: young enough to get excited by stickers and play-acting, but mature enough to crave autonomy and opportunities to improve their world.

Younger adolescents have shed much of their early-childhood curiosity and confidence that they can do anything. They’re hyper-focused on peers, social standing, and extracurriculars, right when the academic rigor of their math and science classes ratchets up.

Good luck getting this difficult-to-inspire bunch excited about the electromagnetic spectrum or fractional coefficients.

Sixth through eighth grade marks a shift in what motivates students, presenting a big challenge for science and math teachers.

“For many [middle school] students, their motivation will decline” starting in adolescence , said Emily Rosenzweig, an assistant professor of educational psychology at the University of Georgia who studies adolescent motivation in STEM subjects.

There are different reasons why this happens, Rosenzweig said, but it surfaces some new problems for middle school teachers: “A big one is competence perceptions: struggling to help students feel like they can learn in STEM,” she said.

Key to motivating this group academically, experts say, is giving them the chance to solve real problems in the adult world, while nurturing their confidence in their abilities and potential. Educators must also appeal to both sides of a middle schooler: the adult they are becoming and the child they very much still are.

In this developmental stage, kids want to know why they’re learning something and not just be told to do it, said Rosenzweig. That desire to understand the “why” is rooted in adolescents’ growing need for independence, she said.

What motivates middle school students?

Connecting what students are learning in STEM subjects to problems they might have to tackle in the real world is an important strategy for motivating this age group.

In Dani Boepple’s 8th grade science class at McDonald Middle School in Mesquite, Texas—located in the Dallas metro area—students learn how human activity in their land-locked city impacts ocean ecosystems.

Boepple teaches them that what goes down drains and runs off lawns at home and in school eventually ends up in the ocean. The same is true of litter, which makes its way into local streams and rivers.

Students then develop plans for action they can take in their homes and neighborhoods to reduce ocean pollution from chemicals and plastics.

“Their plans are really simple but effective,” Boepple said. “They will say, ‘I need to tell my parents to not spray pesticides on the garden and we need to pull weeds. Or I can help my neighborhood by cleaning up the trash that I see in the parking lot.’ It’s things they can actually do to make an impact.”

Projects like these tap into this current generation’s interest in fixing their world, she said.

Boepple also takes her students on virtual field trips to see the inner workings of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston and the technology behind Amazon fulfillment facilities in different states. Students can see how what they’re learning now about the physics behind the movement of objects in our solar system, for example, can be applied to real careers. Hands-on experiments— such as using kinetic sand to make 3D models of topographic maps or mixing chemicals to create reactions—can also be a powerful motivator, said Boepple.

A big challenge to motivating her students, Boepple said, is that many are so afraid of failing that they would rather not try, something she attributes to students internalizing the message that they’re behind after the pandemic and a weakening focus on growth mindsets in their schools.

To help students get past their fear of failure, Boepple focuses on something outside the traditional science curriculum: trust.

“If they trust you, they are more willing to try,” Boepple said. “Just like if they like you, they are more willing to try. Like is a big thing, especially for middle school. They are not going to work for someone they don’t like.”

Boosting her students’ confidence is a focus for Kristyna Mosqueda-Rogers in her 5th and 6th grade math classes as well. Mosqueda-Rogers teaches at Carr Middle School in Hale Center, a rural community in northwest Texas. Her students struggle with a lack of belief in their capabilities, which leads to disengagement.

Her answer? Food trucks.

Mosqueda-Rogers’ 6th grade students are designing their own food trucks, tackling all the math that comes with launching and running a small business, from making decisions about menus and hours of operation to calculating the cost of food, fuel, and wages.

Students build shoebox-sized cardboard models of their food trucks and present their final projects in a classroom food truck festival.

Mosqueda-Rogers’ 5th graders engage in a similar exercise: They design their own zoos, including researching and calculating the size of the enclosures for different types of animals.

“It brings in a lot of the concepts that we teach into one realistic scenario,” she said. “We’re looking at decimals, geometry, finance. ”

While Mosqueda-Rogers has found project-based learning to be very motivating for her students, talking about STEM careers or big, societal problems that can be solved through the STEM disciplines can be a little too abstract for her 5th and 6th grade students. So, she said, “I have to do stuff that’s related to them right now.”

But there are many barriers to teaching students math and science from a problem-solving perspective, according to educators in a recent EdWeek Research Center poll.

There are other strategies for motivating this age group beyond project-based learning.

Teachers can find ways to give students more say in their education, said Rosenzweig, the psychologist, to help meet their developmental need for independence. For example, teachers can offer students a choice between an essay or a presentation for an assignment, or consult students in creating classroom rules.

In Boepple’s 8th grade science classroom, students can earn tickets for meeting academic goals to spend in the “college store” she has created. She stocks her store with apparel and accessories from different colleges that she buys second-hand or has received through donations. Students in her school are allowed to not wear their required uniforms as long as they are sporting clothing with college names on it, and they go wild for the items, Boepple said.

“That really helps motivate them because they can’t afford to go buy a nice college sweatshirt,” she said. “They are so grateful, and they wear them every day with pride.”

Both Boepple and Mosqueda-Rogers say that stickers that recognize small or big achievements—the currency of many elementary school classrooms—remain powerful motivators for middle school students too.

Motivation is multifaceted, and so are the ways to inspire it

Mosqueda-Rogers also believes that the example she sets, as a Latina math teacher, is helping motivate her students by challenging stereotypes about who can be good at math.

“I have so many little Hispanic girls who have a deeper love for [math] now, and they’re just growing tremendously because they’re seeing that it can be done by anyone,” she said.

Even if middle school students—especially the younger ones—aren’t thinking too deeply, yet, about what they want to do when they grow up, it’s important that they see it as plausible that they could join a STEM field, said John Dedeaux Davis Jr., a STEM education specialist at NASA. The U.S. space agency employs him to develop resources for educators to spark kids’ interest in STEM subjects, so NASA has the scientists it needs in the future.

“That connection is very important because we know early exposure to STEM can help drive people to those careers,” said Davis, a former science teacher who taught middle school in Chicago and Texas for 16 years before joining NASA. “Middle school is when students really start to form those ideas of what they might do as a career.”

When he was in the classroom, Davis encouraged his students to tap into the inner child they were quickly growing out of and play make believe—acting like a surgeon or astronaut. The idea, he said, was simply to get students to imagine themselves in these roles.

When it came time to dissect animals, Davis decorated his classroom like a lab or operating room and gave students white coats to wear so they could pretend to be scientists or doctors.

When the class studied space, Davis set up different stations around the classroom. For instance, he turned the underside of a table into a rocket cockpit. Students laid on their backs beneath it, similar to how professional astronauts position themselves during take off.

“Connecting things to the real world that they can relate to is a great way to engage them,” Davis said. “You don’t have to teach straight from the book.”

Some students may seem very difficult to get engaged in STEM. But educators should not give up on them too quickly, Rosenzweig recommends.

There’s a common misconception that motivation comes solely from within students, when really their environments do a lot to shape motivation—such as classrooms that give students more autonomy and opportunities to see the real world application of what they’re learning.

Another big misconception: If a student seems disinterested, then they’re probably not motivated to learn about STEM subjects.

“If a student seems to be not paying attention, seems to be kind of disengaged, it could be because that student doesn’t like the subject and doesn’t want do it,” Rosenzweig said. “But it could also be that the student has a more complex profile. Like, they really think this is important, but they’re struggling with their confidence for it. Or they feel like this is something they can do, but they were up late doing work for a different class.”

And even if a student doesn’t seem destined for a career in a STEM field, competency—and confidence—in STEM subjects is still important for them, too, Rosenzweig said.

The critical thinking and problem-solving skills developed in STEM subjects apply to virtually all other fields and pursuits. And you can never really know when or how a student might find their way into a STEM field. A student may not follow a straight trajectory from high school, to college, to a career in engineering, said Rosenzweig. They might find their STEM calling later in life.

“In my opinion, the more we can do to cultivate that interest and confidence early, so students continue to see it as for them and continue to develop the basic competencies that leave the door open to lots of paths that they might discover later, the better,” she said.

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