Chantal Celestin

“I hate math. Why do I need to learn this? I don’t see how this is going to help me in real life.” As a former math teacher, these statements break my heart, but also reflect frustration with how math concepts are typically taught. STEM education that links to student interests is a great way to not only change how math is taught in your classroom, but show students how math is integrated with other subjects and everyday life.

Math is an important concept to understand. We use math every day, but most students aren’t exposed to slope, coordinates, or angles in real life. If students don’t see the value in learning math, how do we expose them to mathematical concepts that will resonate?

When thinking about using STEM as an alternative way to teach math, I always consider the following:

  • How do we pique students’ interest?
  • How do we keep students engaged?
  • How can learning through discovery help students with math?
  • How do we go from “I hate math” to embracing the struggle?

Step 1: How to Make Math Fun?

Students tend to be more invested in learning when the concepts can be connected to something they care about. Your lesson doesn’t need to be solely based on students’ exact interests, but I recommend throwing in a couple of examples or activities that they would recognize and want to engage with.

Here are a few topics that can make math fun for your students from my own successful lessons:

  • Music
  • Sports
  • Social Media
  • Traveling
  • Technology

All of these topics listed have one thing in common: STEM. STEM education connects these real-world topics, hobbies, or careers to various classroom subjects. Students are exposed to how math influences music production, flying across the Atlantic or simply sharing a photo online. Although these topics are great starting points for planning lessons, garnering interest does nothing if the content isn’t engaging for students.

Step 2: How do we keep students engaged?

The lack of engagement with mathematical concepts is another factor that influences why students hate math. After introducing the topic area, getting students to interact with the material is the hardest part. When I was teaching, I found that the best way to keep my students focused was to really get to know them, so that I could make my lessons worthwhile. It is important to bring those real-world topics to a level that drives student interests and asks students to consider many different answers.

Research shows that “inquiry-based instructions generate the interest and excitement needed to set students up for a lifetime of curiosity and self-driven learning, the hallmarks of success in the new economy”. STEM Education is built on the principle of learning through discovery and self-driven learning. Asking questions is encouraged and students are shown that solutions to problems come from various sources. The “I hate math” mentality is challenged when students are allowed to use their talents and skills to solve problems.

FutureGoals: Hockey Scholar

Students explore area, angles, lines, and more on their own through an interactive game of hockey.

Step 3: How can learning through discovery help students with math?

The best part about watching students struggle and work through a math concept is to see their creativity and hear their discoveries. Each student learns differently, and there isn’t one way to teach math, so we should let students discover what works best for them.
In my own experiences, project-based learning (PBL) can help shift a students’ relationship with math. PBL is where students work on a project that engages them in solving real-world problems or answer complex questions. Encourage students to pick a topic that is interesting to them, so that they are excited to find the best solution. Here are some ideas that I’ve seen:

  • Rides at the amusement park
  • Data analysis in sports
  • STEM in skateboarding
  • Multi-step math problems

EVERFI’s resource Endeavor, shows students how math and technology are used in different careers that they may not even know have to do with STEM. In one portion of the resource, students need to analyze data in order to predict user preferences and recommendations for web purchases.

Step 4: How do we go from “I hate math” to embracing the struggle?

The absence of student control over how mathematics is taught can also influence why students hate math. Students need to feel empowered to take their education into their own hands. Building off the idea of project-based learning, one way to empower students is to create STEM groups. I recommend grouping students and allowing them to pick a topic together. Encourage students to collaborate to explain how the topic relates to STEM, and where they might see these concepts in real-life. Make sure to approve their chosen topic before they start.

Once a skill is developed, we should give students the independence to try and find their own solutions. A quote that I had hanging in my classroom was “Try, Fail, Try again, Discover!” This was a reminder to my students that math is about trying different methods to find your own solutions. While there is a standard way to teach basic math, concepts from STEM education are great ways to help students with math by showing how math is used in everyday life.

Real World Learning Matters

EVERFI empowers teachers to bring critical skills education into their classrooms at no cost. Get activated and join 50,000+ educators across North America!

Chantal is a Program Coordinator on the EVERFI K-12 Team, working with teachers in the Mid-Atlantic region. She used to be a 7th grade special education teacher. She loves sports and listening to music.