Humor, Out-of-the-Box Teaching are Key to Increase Interest in STEM Subjects, Suggests National Survey of High School Students

Results reflective of tech-savvy, social media generation that favors creative learning, according to surveyor Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics

Philadelphia, PA, April 11, 2019 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) -- With American student interest in STEM careers on the decline, a nationwide survey of 16-18 year old students suggests that out-of-the-box teaching, adding humor to the classroom, increasing participation in fun science projects and competitions, and relating math to real-life situations are key ways to draw more U.S. students to STEM subjects.

The survey, conducted by Philadelphia-based Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM), gathered responses from 1,100 high school students from across the U.S. on how to increase student interest, understanding, and performance in math and STEM subjects.

When it comes to drawing more students to STEM subjects, the study found that almost 60 percent of respondents recommended teachers use more out-of-the-box, creative teaching methods and promote participation in fun, science-related projects and competitions. About half (49 percent) of the students suggested making STEM relatable to real life in all lessons, while 35 percent think introducing more technology into the classroom would help. About 32 percent say adding humor to STEM courses — through channels such as videos and projects — will do the trick.

The students queried for the survey are participants in this year’s MathWorks Math Modeling (M3) Challenge, a national internet-based contest organized by SIAM. Now in its 14th year, the competition involves thousands of high school juniors and seniors committing 14 consecutive hours on a designated weekend in March to come up with a solution to a real-world problem using mathematical modeling.

“If we consider standard tests as a benchmark, and national ACT math scores hitting a 20-year low in 2018, these findings provide useful insight about delivering STEM-related information to a generation of tech and social media-savvy students in a way that may not only increase their interest, but their skills and perseverance as well,” said Michelle Montgomery, M3 Challenge project director at SIAM.

Sponsored by Massachusetts-based MathWorks, a leading developer of mathematical computing software, M3 Challenge spotlights applied mathematics and technical computing as powerful problem-solving tools and viable, exciting professions, awarding $100,500 in scholarship prizes. This year’s challenge — which asked students to find solutions to the spread of substance abuse in America — drew the participation of more than 4,000 students (877 teams). The six finalist teams — from Glendale, WI; Lincolnshire, IL; Lincroft, NJ; Nashua, NH; Plymouth, MN; and Rockville, MD — were selected by a national panel of Ph.D.-level mathematicians and will participate in the final presentations and awards event in New York City on April 29.

“STEM isn’t normally associated with humor and frivolity, but the results suggest that non-traditional teaching methods would resonate better with today’s students, who — thanks to social media and apps such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube — have grown accustomed to more creative, entertaining, and technological ways of sharing information,” Montgomery said.

Other Survey HighlightsAccording to the survey, students believe the U.S. government can help boost enthusiasm for STEM subjects too, by supporting more STEM-related competitions and projects (25 percent), providing better resources and technology for the classroom (23 percent), increasing the availability of STEM-related awards and scholarships (21 percent), and funding more after-school math and science clubs (18 percent).

When it comes to teachers helping to improve student performance in math — a key component of STEM — roughly one third of those polled said providing students with more one-on-one assistance and explaining math problems using real-life examples are the best ways to do it. Twenty-one percent said skills would improve by making math more fun through in-class games or using more technology, including interactive visualizations, video, and multimedia, in the classroom.

Math myths, mistakesThe survey also looked at common mistakes people make when it comes to solving math problems, as well as the biggest misconceptions people have about math. “By considering and addressing these issues, governments, teachers and students can take steps to both debunk the myths and avoid common errors, which inevitably will lead to improved math attitudes, enthusiasm, and performance,” Montgomery said.

The survey reported the No. 1 myth about math is that it is not applicable to real life (71 percent), followed by the notion that people who are good at math are born with a natural ability (55 percent) and that not everyone is capable of being good at math (50 percent). As for the biggest mistake people make when it comes to math, the majority pointed to conceptual errors, meaning not understanding the concepts of logic used in order to solve the problem.

“Our products, MATLAB and Simulink, are widely used across academia and commercial industries around the world. As a result, MathWorks understands the importance of students choosing to pursue STEM careers,” said Lauren Tabolinsky, MathWorks academic program manager. “A key factor in encouraging students is to demonstrate the relevance of math, engineering and science outside the classroom. Competitions like the M3 Challenge are instrumental to this effort.

More information about M3 Challenge and the 2019 challenge problem can be found at

About MathWorks

MathWorks is the leading developer of mathematical computing software. MATLAB, the language of technical computing, is a programming environment for algorithm development, data analysis, visualization, and numeric computation. Simulink is a graphical environment for simulation and Model-Based Design for multidomain dynamic and embedded systems. Engineers and scientists worldwide rely on these product families to accelerate the pace of discovery, innovation, and development in automotive, aerospace, electronics, financial services, biotech-pharmaceutical, and other industries. MATLAB and Simulink are also fundamental teaching and research tools in the world's universities and learning institutions. Founded in 1984, MathWorks employs more than 4,500 people in 16 countries, with headquarters in Natick, Massachusetts, USA. For additional information, visit

About Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics 

The Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM), headquartered in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is an international society of more than 14,000 individual, academic and corporate members from 90+ countries. SIAM helps build cooperation between mathematics and the worlds of science and technology to solve real-world problems through publications, conferences, and communities like chapters, sections and activity groups. Learn more at