Engagement, enjoyment and creativity in STEM classrooms?

Enhancing enjoyment by fostering the imagination seems to be effective and is clearly helping enhance education, but maybe not all topics lend themselves to the nontraditional models. STEM fields require a foundation of knowledge that while the lecture may not always be the ideal means of information transfer, I question how much benefit there is for trying to apply these methods to things like Fluid Dynamics. Yes, hands on labs support learning, but there is little room for imagination and creativity around the equations of fluid movements. All through STEM there are core courses that without their foundation, students will be ill equipped to move on to, unfortunately those are also the potentially more engaging courses. Full disclosure, I have no idea how to go about bringing imagination and engagement to a STEM core course.


The new learners of the 21st century featured classroom environments fostering creative learning approaches which allowed the students to explore their interests. I have worked in commercial video production and photography, and while skills like editing and composition can be taught, it takes an already creative mind to truly master the craft, and those creative minds can often master the craft by practice alone. Coding has been described many times as more akin to a language in terms of the learning process, so while it is a STEM aspect being taught in this creative way, I still don’t see a connection to how these approaches would address calculus, or basic chemistry. Specific topics in STEM may benefit from these gamifications and alternative strategies in the classroom. But there are still large amounts of knowledge that needs to be transferred consistently before there is room for creativity and exploration.


I have noticed there is often a relation between engagement and enjoyment, if the topic is not interesting to the students (or myself) the chances to achieve engagement are low, and the non-class related activities will come out on the technologies. I have encountered several topics where due to enjoyment I have greater desire to learn more, and spend more of my time pursuing further learning. Unfortunately, not all of these topics have direct application to pursuing my PhD, but many of them have become hobbies. Finding some means to change the learning experience from that of a standard lecture to focus on fostering enjoyment might build greater engagement, but who truly loves those core STEM courses that are usually offered as a “weed out” course?


In one of the courses I have been involved in, on Fridays the students take over the course. They get to find a part of the material that speaks to them, develop a brief lecture and then spend most of their time leading an activity which they feel facilitates understanding the material of the week. The students on both sides of the room seem to enjoy the flipped classroom days. But the course is a senior level technical elective where we are covering a lot of interpersonal and management theories. The students clearly gain a deeper understanding beyond the simple definitions of the concepts and theories in class, which enables them to adapt them in their work lives, but they still had to suffer through the core STEM coursework to get to this elective course.


I still am not sure how this could be applied to say, fluid dynamics and relay enough knowledge to set the students up for continuing through a course progression. But there is a definite need to enhance those core STEM courses, get more students interested in the fundamentals earlier so that they can master them and apply them later. I only wish there was a straightforward way to make the courses more engaging.

6 Replies to “Engagement, enjoyment and creativity in STEM classrooms?”

  1. It is hard. Those fundamental concepts just have to be learned and if they are not not you cannot learn the more exciting things. Maybe expressing this to the students would be helpful. They can relate to learning their multiplication tables, that wasn’t fun but enabled them to get where they are now. I also think that not everything has to be fun or really engaging. Maybe in these core classes it is possible to mix in stories or activities that show the application of the core concepts being learned as a way to motivate students and give them concepts.
    I think that the history of scientific fields are really cool. I study soil fertilizers and plant nutrition, so a major concept in our field is nitrogen fertilizer and the industrial process, Haber-Bosch process–that manufactures it. I read a book called the Alchemy of Air in one of my classes about the history of this discovery and the two men Haber and Bosch who created it. The book touched on science but had a lot of personal stories. As a result, I have detailed knowledge of the science but also an understanding of the context that this critical innovation has in history and in my field and the social, political and economic impacts it has. And I have a very personal opinion on the HB process. So many of the major breakthroughs in our scientific fields overshadow amazing stories of heartbreak, perseverance and suffering that would be very engaging to students. And learning about these stories of discovery are a good way to explain the processes of science.

    1. Bringing in the background stories is an approach I hadn’t thought of, it could be an interesting way to humanize some of the less exciting material.

    2. This is the same Haber whose research developed Zyclon B (used by Nazis in gas chambers during the Holocaust), right? I think I heard a podcast about Alchemy of Air and was just mesmerized. Lots of food for thought in terms of how people are remembered and the ethical implications and unintended consequences of human discovery. Wow.

      1. I don’t remember Zyclon B, but he was involved in research on chemical weapons. What is really sad was that Haber, himself was a Jew. Other interesting issues we tackled using this book include chemical properties of the various forms of fertilizers via a story about a fertilizer storage building that (tragically) exploded and killed many people and we talked about the value of theoretical vs applied science, because both Haber and Bosch were Nobel award winners but Bosch had to wait many years while they debated if an applied application of theoretical science deserved an award. Now that I reflect on these discussions, I really did need (and get through independent research) a sound knowledge of the technical aspects of the topics (N fertilizers) in order to participate in these discussions. It is also amazing how much of this section of the class I remember and how often I bring it up in different settings, not just in my classes and research.

  2. I’m in STEM and majoring in Fluid Mechanics. You got a good point! That’s also one of my concerns on teaching core courses. If they don’t have solid background, how is it possible for them to exert their imagination and creativity later when solving complicated problems!? Also, the class time is also limited for core courses. There are so many materials needed to be covered!

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