Turning Skeptical Students into Science Achievers

Educator Jamila Bowser creates connections with her middle school students encourage involvement in science, technology, engineering, and math

Jamila Bowser knows first hand just how difficult it can be to keep middle school students interested in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) careers. "Many kids think these subjects are boring," said Bowser, a Mathematics and Science Education Network (MSEN) and SECME teacher at Lowe's Grove Middle School in Durham, NC. "It's up to us as teachers to convince them otherwise."

Often, Bowser said, it's the most skeptical children who turn into her best students over time. To get them to buy in to the idea of a STEM career, Bowser ties real-life, practical examples into classroom instruction. She also offers incentives (such as the opportunity to pick the partner of their choice for an upcoming project) and starts working with the students as soon as they get to the sixth grade right through to eighth grade graduation.

"The biggest barrier is connecting with the students," said Bowser. "With every new science concept that's introduced, for example, you really have to find a way to help them make their own, positive choices and really engage fully with the subject." The fact that Bowser gets to work with students for three full years (as opposed to the typical single school year that most teachers get) gives her a big advantage in winning those kids over to technical subjects.

"I have the luxury of time to get the students over the initial hump, and to the point where they're saying, 'Okay, you were right about this,'" said Bowser, whose efforts haven't gone unnoticed. Each year, SECME (formerly the Southeastern Consortium for Minorities in Engineering) recognizes outstanding K-12 educators who have demonstrated leadership ability in advancing student development and outcomes in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Bowser made the cut in 2009 for the SECME Teacher of the Year and ranked as one of four finalists who were chosen from a selection of nominees based on submission of extensive portfolios and judged by a panel of educators. The teachers were honored June 25 during the 33rd Annual SECME Summer Institute, which was held at the Daytona Museum of Arts and Sciences and hosted by Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

Founded in 1975 by the engineering deans from seven Southeastern universities, SECME's mission is to increase the pool of historically underrepresented and underserved students who will be prepared to enter and complete post-secondary studies in STEM. The organization provides teacher professional development and coordinates student competitions nationwide.

Bowser, who has been an educator for four years, started her career as a seventh grade science teacher. When Lowe's Grove Middle School's principal decided to beef up the institution's SECME and MSEN involvement, she asked Bowser to head up the initiative in 2006. As a pre-college program, the classes are offered to students as an elective.

"It's pretty much what a student would expect to learn in the middle-school years, but in a more hands-on manner," said Bowser. "The courses are lab- and experiment-based and tend to work well with students who may not excel in regular science and math classes."

The engineering class, for example, takes a decidedly more "workforce" approach through practical instruction that finds students building towers out of straw or constructing bridges out of balsa wood. Once those simple structures are constructed, students are encouraged to use materials such as tape and rubber bands to make their towers stronger and longer-lasting.

"These projects get students thinking like engineers," said Bowser, "and help them wrap their minds around what it would really be like to get a college degree in engineering and to get out and use their talents in the field."

Bowser, who for the 2009-2010 school year will begin coaching other science teachers on how to get students engaged in STEM, said the options available to today's instructors are limitless. All it takes is a little creativity and legwork. "If you want to teach Newton's Law, all you really [need] are a few Styrofoam plates and balloons," she explained. The Web is another invaluable teaching tool for STEM teachers, she added, and one that today's students automatically refer to and connect with.

"There are literally hundreds of Web sites where you can find sample lessons that can be crafted to a specific group of students," said Bowser. "The idea is to start off small and work to convince students that you're not just going to throw another textbook lesson at them. Many times, they won't even realize that they're learning."

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at [email protected].