Leveraging STEM connections in High School Math

Most of my high school math students arrive in my classroom feeling that they are not very good at math because of the types of courses I teach.   Often they have ruled out working hard at math because they have no confidence it would be worth the effort to try.  Many have set their sights on jobs that require the least amount of math possible.  Growth mindset along with STEM connections seem to be the the best tools I have to change that.

Incorporating real-life work problems into an Algebra curriculum has been a challenge, but the opportunities are there.  From test engineering to function coding, setting the atmosphere as a realistic STEM-career environment is not out of reach, especially with respect to problem-based learning.  Recently our learning commons (formerly library) set up small discussion areas where the tables double as white boards.  I decided to take my students there one class period to work on some challenging tasks and the effect was almost magical.  I talked to my students about how tech professionals collaborate with as much realistic enthusiasm as I could muster and was taken back by how well they responded.

Is it really that simple to make a dramatic change in the heart of an unmotivated student?  I believe it often is.  A few years ago I taught an at-risk summer school for incoming freshmen and we took them to the community college where they experienced the lighted fountains and well-furnished student center.  They didn’t have to tell me how it affected them because I could see it when they reached for their phones to take pictures, and I could hear them telling each other how they planned  to go there.  It was nothing against the tech school but by contrast, the tech school looked more like Alcatraz.  None of those students had the behavior issues expected that freshmen year based on the risk data.  My intuition says we reached their hearts.

When students do not respond to my math instruction and assignments, I take the blame for not motivating them.  If they truly understood the difference their effort could make in the long-term, the choice would be a no-brainer for them.  While delayed gratification and entitlement remain stumbling blocks for many, inspiration and goal-setting can go a long way toward intrinsic academic motivation.

I continue to stand in awe of the responsibly we have as math teachers to use our words and classroom environment to paint pictures of success for our students.  For 2016, I resolve to do better.

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