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Inspiring Gen Z: How Teachers Can Cultivate STEM Interest Among Students


In an era defined by technological innovation and rapid advancements, the importance of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education has never been greater. As educators strive to prepare the next generation for the challenges and opportunities of the future, inspiring Gen Z students to pursue careers in STEM fields emerges as a crucial objective. By fostering curiosity, providing engaging experiences, and highlighting the real-world impact of STEM disciplines, teachers can ignite a passion for science and technology that inspires students to pursue fulfilling and impactful careers.

As Toshiba’s ExploraVision event happened recently, we asked Jose Rivas, an educator and former Boeing engineer from Lennox Academy, California, how he works to empower students to make a difference and ignite a passion for STEM that fuels the next generation of innovators, problem solvers, and change-makers.

What strategies do you use to make STEM topics engaging and relevant to Gen Z learners?

The goal of my instructional style is to challenge students’ misconceptions with thought provoking activities that encourage curiosity and dialogue. My role as the teacher is to not be a depository of information, but a guide to help them see the patterns, scale and structure that exists in physics and engineering.

When designing a lesson, I use instructional strategies that provide an outline of the most effective methods to use and how to use real-time data to ensure student success in developing proficiency. The foundation for all instructional strategies requires that the methods applied be student-centered, engaging, provide multiple means of representation and expression, provide opportunities for student self-regulation and are connected to a phenomenon.

Using this as a foundation, I become an artist sculpting culturally relevant activities that perform three tasks: it allows me and the students to collect valuable assessment data that informs how well they are achieving mastery of the learning target; it excites students in implementing the process of scientific thinking to examine the world around them; it allows me to build a foundation of trust and open dialogue where my students’ ideas are valued and nurtured.

How do you encourage creativity and critical thinking in classrooms that have proven to be impactful?

Twenty years ago, I began my journey as a teacher who implements creative teaching methods that engage students. My classroom is driven by movement and autonomy. In a typical day, my students work in collaborative groups. I minimize lectures and provide a forum for discussion driven by learning goals that I create collaboratively with each student.

Using these learning goals, students decide what they want to focus on and physically adjust their environment to complete the tasks. They do this by rearranging their desks, chairs and tables to set up experimental design labs, conduct mini lectures to learn new scientific concepts, work on designs that they print with the various 3D printers in the room, facilitate peer tutoring sessions to help fellow students struggling with content, or work on prototypes that they are developing for various competitions.

Can you share examples of real-world applications of STEM concepts that resonate with Gen Z students?

Gen Z students want to take immediate action to solve problems they see. My students are focused on the environment and finding ways to mitigate the continuous damage done to it. Since I teach engineering, they are focused on the manufacturing processes that can be changed or processes that can be implemented to reduce the effects of waste and carbon generation. In this regard, I have had ExploraVision projects that reduced or changed the materials of mass-produced products and have decreased pollution and carbon footprints. 

I have had students explore food waste at our school and implement changes to reduce food being thrown away. Students have also explored solutions to using robotic systems to fill potholes in our city.

How do you address the unique learning preferences of Gen Z, such as multimedia and interactive content, in your STEM teaching?

Gen Z is very used to having all the answers given to them with a quick check on the internet.  What I try to teach them is the value of exploring, collecting data, seeing patterns that emerge and what those patterns mean to the phenomenon they are studying.  This is how I engage my students. They want the answer instantaneously, but the reality is that answers take time to develop and the trick as a teacher is to develop interesting problems that my students need to solve and analyze, which takes time and encourages exploration.

What role do you see technology playing in inspiring Gen Z students to pursue STEM fields?

In my classroom, I use technology sparingly. I have students approach science and engineering with a more hands-on approach using tools, drill presses and equipment that is not too dependent on technology.  When I do have students use technology, it is to connect to ideas that will require a more specific approach to solve, such as programming or using CAD software to 3D print solutions. What I found is that in some instances students value a more analog approach to creating solutions and then verifying their results using technology.

How do you foster a growth mindset and resilience among Gen Z students in the face of challenges in STEM subjects?

To inspire students to pursue STEM careers and develop a growth mindset, it is important for them to understand the “why” to increase engagement and creativity. It is easy to learn the use of a machine or a concept, but it is the “why” that drives a student to become passionate about what they are learning and doing. The “why” must also provide students with opportunities for autonomy and self-regulation to explore their creativity and utilize their knowledge to manifest their vision. The “why” in my classroom takes the form of projects, lessons and competitions that spur intrinsic motivation and buy in. From building drivable electric cars and solar boats to designing systems to detect cancer or reduce the carbon footprint of products by changing the manufacturing process, students learn how to use their ideas to create.

How does ExploraVision help further young students’ exposure to STEM-related subjects? Can you share any ExploraVision student success stories or testimonials?

I have used ExploraVision within my product development course for the last 6 years.   During that time, I used ExploraVision competition to enhance my curriculum for product development using the research component and problem identification as a basis to exploring solutions where my students develop prototypes and share with our community through an engineering showcase event at the end of the year. Through the years my students have received several honorable mentions, and many have been inspired to continue their study of STEM related fields in college.

ExploraVision allows students to look at the world around them and wonder what they can do to make it better.  It gives them the opportunity to express their ideas through a tangible solution that has the potential to solve many pressing issues in our society.  It gives them opportunities to collaborate with each other, connect with their communities and actively engage in our society through scientific and engineering processes that can make a difference in addressing global issues we face.

How do you promote diversity and inclusion in STEM education for Gen Z students?

The hallmark of my program is how I build confidence by using student centered learning that stimulates intellectual capacity and emotional growth through projects and activities that have meaning and purpose. Through this approach I help build confidence in my students and empower them to create their own personal brand that reflects their beliefs to improve their community through the lens of social justice and built on design thinking principles. The result I hope to achieve is to have my students create solutions that apply empathy. I want them to see that the critical thinking skills they develop in my classes are not just relegated to creating prototypes that solve physical problems but that they can be used to solve societal problems that press on our community. I want their `why’ to become not just about winning awards and 1st places, but about making a difference in their homes and community.

If you had one piece of advice you’d like to share with the next generation of young STEM professionals, what would that message be? And why?

What I tell my students every day is that science and engineering is a process where failure is necessary to make improvements and find better solutions; don’t be afraid to fail. For many of my students failing is something that needs to be avoided, but for scientists or engineering designs that do not work out – leads to more insightful solutions.

About Jose Rivas:

Jose Rivas

Digital Art, Physics and Engineering Teacher at Lennox Math, Science and Technology Academy, California.

For more information about Toshiba ExploraVision, please visit www.exploravision.org