February 28, 2018 by

STEM & Problem-Based Learning in the Classroom

Problem-based learning is introducing new ways to teach STEM-based subjects to students. With a new surge in educational initiatives and developments, this learning trend is becoming more popular within the classroom. To remain competitive with other countries’ STEM growth — such as India and China — it’s crucial to provide students with the fundamental understanding and tools of problem-based learning with the purpose (and optimism) of more skilled workers in STEM fields. In order to continue this momentum, educators and institutions are encouraged to try new tactics to ignite critical thinking, teamwork, and enrich the learning process by blending standard curriculums together. This is especially crucial for the U.S. as it faces considerable STEM labor shortages. Problem-based learning is an effective and valuable method that can guide students towards a better understanding of STEM programs.

Here are three ways problem-based learning can help motivate students to pursue important STEM careers.

More Hands-On Experience

Getting students motivated and excited to pick a STEM major in college can be tricky these days. Students are starting to have less interests in these fields. Even more concerning, there has been an increase of STEM graduates (particularly women) leaving or not entering the STEM workforce at all once they earn their degrees. This is worrisome because, as the New Jersey Institute of Technology points out, STEM fields — such as computer science — are experiencing massive employee shortages despite computer science being the current highest-paid college degree. Moreover, the U.S.’s global economic output has reduced from 25 percent to 19 percent. So, how can the U.S. start creating higher interest and participation in STEM programs? By integrating problem-based learning into classrooms more, there is the potential to fill in these missing gaps by teaching students the methods needed to be successful in STEM. Problem-based learning emphasizes the hands-on approach when it comes to projects and assignments. Students learn by drawing on their own life experiences as well as working together with their peers to find a solution. Much like a scientists performing experiments in their labs, students are able to create a valuable learning experience through mistakes and successes. If students are exposed to problem-based learning from an early age, they’ll feel more inclined (and prepared) to pursue vital STEM careers during and after college.

Increase in Equality

Women now make up 47 percent of the U.S. workforce, and they also outnumber the amount of men on college campuses. Gender equality is improving in the workforce, but STEM careers are still struggling to find equality. For example, within engineering careers, only 14 percent of employees are female. With that in mind, how might problem-based learning help encourage women to enter the STEM field? Experts at University of California Riverside explain that, “By making STEM subjects come alive for students earlier in their academic career and then following up with appropriate resources at the collegiate level, women are more likely to pursue a career in engineering.” Not only that, but women are more likely to join engineering, or another STEM field, if they have female mentors and peers to look up to and team up with. Problem-based learning encourages students to develop skills for group collaboration, critical appraisal, and the ability to transfer skills and knowledge from the classroom to work. If women are encouraged at a young age to use problem-based learning, they’ll enter college with a better base of skills and the confidence to enter the fields of STEM.

A Change in Curriculum

With STEM’s hands-on approach, problem-based learning is a fundamental tool to introduce to children early in their education. Encouraging students to self-direct when faced with a problem usually leads to a deep understanding, which in turn leads to better a retention of resources and information. So how do we use this approach more often in the classroom? Cross-curriculum seems to be a key factor. By breaking down the segregation of common curriculum (think English, Math, History), students are receiving a more well-rounded educational experience. This is cultivating students to better understand the approaches often found within the STEM field, learning real world insight within their classrooms.

Problem-based learning has the ability to teach students the importance of opportunities and possibilities. Within STEM, the possibilities can seem endless. By encouraging student to pursue STEM careers, and preparing them accordingly, the U.S. can look forward to better future growth and success.


Avery Taylor Phillips is a writer with a focus in early childhood education. She is a community activist passionate about equity in access to educational resources and has developed a deep understanding of the way children learn in the face of challenges due to their family circumstance through her work. In her spare time, she works to advance the progress towards equitable education opportunities.