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How to engage disengaged STEM Gen Z students & support their well-being

Ginelle Testa
How to...
January 10, 2023

Do you feel like your Gen Z students (born between 1997 and 2012) are more disengaged than ever in your STEM courses? They are, unfortunately. Here are two of the main reasons we’ve gathered from our experience talking with educators:

  • Technology access: Gen Z students have grown up with access to technology and the internet from a young age, which can make traditional classroom settings feel less engaging or relevant to them.
  • Mental health struggles: Many Gen Z students struggle with mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression, which negatively impact their school engagement. 

We’ll talk more in-depth about these issues, how you can help as an instructor, and how your institution can help.

Technology access

Gen Zs possess cell phones like they possess limbs. Technology is a constant. This can have benefits, but it also has drawbacks in the classroom. There’s the classic issue of the misuse of technology in the classroom (texting friends or being on social media platforms), but then there are more nuanced drawbacks, such as reduced attention span due to technology. 

Dr. Julie Albright, a sociologist specializing in digital culture and communications, discusses how platforms like TikTok are designed to be as addictive as slot machines. Not only are students addicted to these platforms, but they’re changing Gen Z’s attention span. Looking at videos that are 10-15 seconds long impacts students’ brains in that they shorten attention spans. As a result, instructors compete for space in their students’ brains. 

How can STEM educators help?

  1. Focus on the why: Gen Z students want to know why they’re learning what they’re learning. What will they get out of it? How can they apply their learnings? Especially in STEM, if you can connect teaching to real-world problems, Gen Z students are more likely to care and be engaged. 
  2. Utilize the right interactive technology: Gen Zs are true digital natives, so embracing technology in the classroom is important. Edtech tools can get unwieldy, but when you find the right ones that work for your classroom, they make everyone’s lives easier. For STEM classrooms, virtual labs can help supplement teachings as pre or post-labs. Or, they can replace labs entirely that are too costly to run in person. Research found that 92% of students said they felt engaged by Labster’s simulations, partly thanks to gamified learning.
  3. Encourage diversity in STEM: Gen Z is the most diverse generation yet. According to the Pew Research Center, nearly half are racial or ethnic minorities. Yet, interest in STEM is concentrated among white and Asian men. Encouraging diversity is crucial to maintaining the attention of BIPOC people and women. How to do this? One way is to utilize diverse backgrounds. Instructors can use the theory of “culturally relevant education,” which “is a conceptual framework that recognizes the importance of including students’ cultural backgrounds, interests, and lived experiences in all aspects of teaching and learning within the classroom and across the school.“

How can educational institutions help?

Student engagement is an issue because it can mean failed and dropped classes or, even worse, students withdrawing from school entirely. There are steps from the National Center for Safe Supportive Learning Environments faculty can take to support instructors in their efforts to keep students engaged:

  • Help identify and fund helpful edtech tools
  • Provide teachers with the resources they need to teach in an engaging way
  • Offer up-to-date & effective professional development opportunities
  • Encourage collaboration and peer-support
  • Recognize and award teacher achievements 
  • Promote work-life balance to prevent educator burnout

Mental health struggles 

This generation has grown up during a time of economic, political, and social uncertainty, which affects their mental health, and as a result, their motivation and focus in school.

  • A 2022 analysis by Harmony Healthcare IT found that 42% of Gen Zs are diagnosed with a mental health condition. The analysis suggests tens of millions of Gen Z young adults started dealing with a mental health problem in the months immediately following the start of the global pandemic in March 2020.

How can STEM educators help?

It’s important to acknowledge that instructors are not mental health professionals; they have clear roles and responsibilities. They are to teach, inspire, coach, and guide - not diagnose, treat, and cure. However, instructors can still take steps to make the classroom a safe place and support their students. Mentalhealth.gov has great resources on what instructors can do to help. Here are some of the suggestions listed:

  • Promote social and emotional competency and build resilience
  • Help ensure a positive, safe school environment
  • Teach and reinforce positive behaviors and decision-making
  • Encourage helping others
  • Make accommodations for students
  • Help ensure access to school-based mental health support

How can institutions help?

Much of the onus of mental health support lies on the shoulders of the administration. Here are some ways administrators and institutional policies can help: 

  • Provide basic mental health awareness training to instructors, students, and parents
  • Have an accessible wellness center with sufficient resources
  • Properly fund mental health resources
  • Create a safe, positive school environment 
  • Address bullying and violence within the institution
  • Develop policies that support mental health infrastructure

Questions for reflection:

  • Have you seen a decline in student mental health or engagement? What tactics have you used to help your students?
  • What would you say to administrators who hope to help with these issues?

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