Perhaps more than English or history, STEM subjects require an enormous amount of foundational learning before students can become competent. Students usually reach graduate school before they can hope to make an original contribution. They can experiment in high school labs, but the U.S. schools’ approach to math and science lacks, in large part, a creative element. We need to help students understand that math and science are cumulative disciplines, and help them enjoy learning even as they gradually build a base of knowledge.
One way to do this is to encourage students to engage in self-guided or collaborative research projects — something the Internet has made much more feasible. An example from my own field is Zooniverse, a collection of experimental projects in which students can classify galaxies and search for new planets or supernovae using real data collected by NASA. Taking part in such explorations early will help students understand that science and math aren’t just abstract equations, but tools we use to understand our world. By the time they get to college, they will have mastered the rhythm of the scientific method — learn, apply, learn, apply — and enjoy the process.