04/26/2011 07:16 pm ET Updated Jun 26, 2011

Why Is STEM Boring?

Despite several initiatives and millions of dollars of investment in both the K-12 and university level, STEM still lacks appeal. Why is STEM boring?

STEM in general, but engineering and technology in particular, is more application-oriented and hands-on than most subjects. Therefore, STEM is supposed to be engaging and theory. In fact, STEM subject areas emerged because of sheer necessity. Consider calculus for example.

Calculus was invented by Sir Isaac Newton (scholars agree that Leibniz also invented calculus independently) to help solve real problems involving motion and change. Newton actually used the word 'fluxion' to describe calculus. He used fluxion to describe motion and how things change. A simple necessity led Newton to calculus, one of his greatest inventions. Newton did not invent calculus to satisfy his intellectual curiosity, or to make life difficult for students in generations to come.

The point is, calculus is not really a difficult subject. It was created as a powerful tool to solve problems. Bruner, an influential cognitive psychologist once stated that any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development.

According to this statement, basic principles of calculus can be taught to a fifth grader in ways that makes sense. I have experimented successfully with elementary and middle school students, and confidently state, any student who can draw rectangles and determine their areas, can be introduced to calculus. Rate of change can be explained to any child that has seen a slope. It is even easier to teach if a child skis or rides a bike.

If we can introduce calculus to fifth graders, then why does the mention of calculus create fear in the minds of students? For some students, getting a passing grade in calculus is like escaping a death sentence. This discussion about calculus is also equally applicable to physics, another exciting subject that can be taught using examples from our everyday life. Yet, physics is one of the most dreaded subjects. This is true for other STEM subjects as well.

After years of teaching engineering and working with thousands of K-12 students at all levels, I believe part of the responsibility in shrouding STEM subjects with fear and boredom, lies with STEM educators. It seems that misguided mathematicians, educators and curriculum experts with no real-world experience use these subjects to demonstrate their intellectual prowess. The College Board that administers AP and SAT subject tests make things even worse by increasing the material coverage and the difficulty level of exams. As a result, in courses like calculus, a large portion of material taught, and which students are tested, is irrelevant and never required in real life.

STEM is 'boring' because it is taught out of context.

In K-12, STEM should be taught so students truly understand basic principles and its relevance to real-world issues. The goal of STEM education in K-12 should not be about covering lot of meaningless material, but instead, about uncovering principles.

Until then, STEM will be boring!