A fear of STEM subjects appears to be a common phenomenon among UK students. Perhaps one of the reasons for this is the emphasis placed on their importance within education and business, thus the pressure on students to do well is heightened.
A report by the Organisation for Economic Co‑operation and Development, published in May 2015, ranked the UK 20th in the world for maths and science skills, and the US 28th. Singapore headed the skills table, with Hong Kong second, South Korea third and Japan fourth. Finland was the highest ranked European country, in sixth. Ironically, the OECD’s findings don’t prevent the US from being one of the biggest contributors to the technology industry.
Pressure to perform is particularly true if students develop difficulty with STEM at the start of their time at school. At the centre of any phobia lies the primitive fight or flight reaction, which has been proven to be involuntary rather than being based on rational behaviour.
One of the great tragedies of developing a fear of STEM for young students is that they may never reach their true potential, simply due to the perceived emphasis of the UK education system on assessment rather than teaching and learning. In 2013 the then-Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Education and Childcare, Elizabeth Truss, said: "By the age of 14, girls have lost confidence in their maths ability… a generation of girls are nervous about maths and science. This is a matter of culture."
Fear of STEM subjects such as maths, chemistry, and physics occur when students place a high value in a task but have no control over it, which causes anxiety. This overwhelming anxiety is almost automatic and difficult to control and, therefore, the students’ way of responding to their fear is often to avoid it.
The myth that maths and science are only required by those students who are intending to follow a scientific career is also one which makes it easier for students to jettison subjects early in their student career and feel no guilt.
As such, it is rare to see students studying both the arts and sciences, or timetables that would allow for such diverse choices. The message is very much all or nothing, in that you are either scientifically minded or you are artistically minded. There is little room for students who want to dabble in STEM subjects rather than make it their main focus.
We all know the old stereotype where someone who is good at English is less capable of mathematics, and vice versa. However studies have shown that such ingrained stereotypes, such as gender abilities for either maths or English, simply do not hold true.
Perhaps the key lies in the age at which students fall out of love with STEM. It is interesting that Andreas Schleicher, of the OECD, notes: "Aged nine and 10, both girls and boys in the UK think science is really interesting; by age 15, girls in the UK think it is really boring.”
Beller and Gafni’s research reveals that boys and girls at approximately nine years of age have similar maths skills. Their study goes on to show by age 13, boys’ scores tended to be higher than girls in 17 out of 20 countries. This dramatic fall-off in interest and desire to engage in STEM by age 13 may be explained by the lack of relevance girls feel that STEM subjects have in their lives due to the manner in which they are taught, i.e. in isolation from society or subjects which interest girls.
Another recent study from Chicago showed that the parts of the brain involved in fear of maths and science are the parietal and frontal lobe areas. Interestingly, these areas are also linked to ability to concentrate and University of Chicago Professor of Psychology Sian Beilock, wrote a paper with her PhD research student Ian Lyons entitled "Mathematics Anxiety: Separating the Math from the Anxiety". Beilock and Lyons argue that students who experience fear of maths and science have difficulty as soon as the subject is presented to them. They have little opportunity therefore to control their fears or get past that fear in order to concentrate on the problem in hand.
Ironically, the ability to control anxiety and focus was more important than employing the part of the brain that helps with mathematical calculations. According to Beilock: "For math-anxious individuals to succeed, they need to focus on controlling their emotions."
Beilock, a leading expert on mathematics anxiety also argues that classroom practices that "help students focus their attention and engage in the maths task at hand may help eliminate the poor performance brought on by maths anxiety".
Overcoming anxiety was found to be less about what knowledge the student had, and more about their ability to focus and concentrate and move forward through that anxiety. Beilock argues that waiting until you are in the maths exam is already too late to deal with the issue. Dealing with highly anxious and less anxious students requires different strategies and such strategies as deep breathing exercises and relaxation techniques can successfully be learned by students.
The good news is that if we know what the problem is we are halfway towards solving it. STEM subject anxiety is multifaceted and can involve a number of factors that include parents, teachers, peers and personality. It was recognised in 1985 that teaching plays a strong role in shaping pupil attitudes towards subjects such as maths and science. Moreover, it has since been proven that teaching strategies such as giving constructive feedback, and telling students what they have done right, as well as what they have done incorrectly, builds confidence in high anxiety students.
Ensuring that teachers have reasonable expectations of students and what they should be able to achieve within the timeframe provided ensures that unreasonable expectations are avoided. Creating a safe environment where students feel comfortable asking questions and using a variety of one-to-one or group settings allows solutions and knowledge to be shared among students. There is also an argument for mixed ability classes, where weaker students are helped by stronger students and stronger students learn from peer teaching, which reinforces learning.
Either way, fear of STEM is something that requires immediate attention, because our economic and technological development depends on these high-level subjects and the extension of these to all students of varied abilities in order to boost our research and development in all kinds of technology.
However, we should also not ignore the fact that some of the world’s greatest innovations were powered by psychology and arts majors. Mark Zuckerberg majored in psychology at university which obviously helped to craft the Facebook concept. Perhaps the last word should go to Steve Jobs, who once stated when unveiling a new iPad: "It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough –that it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing."