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What Makes a Great STEM Student? 5 Ways to Become One

One bad experience with science or math shouldn’t ruin the disciplines for you forever. You can reclaim your identity as a great STEM student with this advice.

by Dr. Christopher Emdin
Professor of Education, University of Southern California

Last Updated: Jun 2, 2022

Do you currently struggle with science and math or generally find STEM fields disengaging? If so, this does not mean you’re not equipped to do well in these subjects in college. In fact, it’s more likely you have what it takes to be a scientist or engineer if you didn’t succeed in these subjects in high school. While educators and the world of science lament the fact that they don’t have enough people to fill STEM jobs, many potential scientists and engineers have sworn off these subjects because of their high school experiences, whether it was getting a bad grade, disliking a teacher, or struggling with the material. People with mathematical and scientific talent often pursue professions in which they won’t feel fulfilled or will never have an opportunity to showcase their genius just because of these past experiences. But you can be a great STEM student. Here are five ways to give these subjects a second chance.

1. Discover what makes a great STEM student

After decades of studying the attributes of the most successful scientists, engineers, and mathematicians, I’ve identified the skills, traits, and attributes that many of them share. I’ve also spent time conducting research on the attributes required to be successful in STEM classes, from kindergarten through 12th grade. I’ve discovered that what it takes to be successful in STEM is drastically different from what it takes to be successful in STEM classes. This is a provocative revelation for some and a hidden truth for others. Either way, it’s necessary for students to know as they enter college and start deciding what they want to do with the rest of their lives.

Understand what it means to be science-minded

Science-mindedness captures scientific habits of mind, inquiry skills, and observing and learning from the greatest scientists and mathematicians. It includes having or making keen observations, basing claims on evidence, expressing curiosity, being analytical, having profound creativity, being open-minded, and using analogies to make connections between complex ideas. These traits are shared by people who may feel far removed from intellectual pursuits but have much in common with historical geniuses like Albert Einstein and contemporary science heroes like Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Engineer yourself into a scientist

Every day, without realizing it, people who’ve had negative experiences in school operate with a level of genius that could find them success in STEM fields. The bottom line is everyone can and should pursue these disciplines, even if they’ve had problems in the past. It’s important to acknowledge that whatever reasons you’ve chosen to disengage from these subjects are justified—but they can be overcome so you can reclaim your STEM genius.

2. Reclaim words said and unsaid

Since childhood, everyone around us says impactful things that shape who we become. If you’re in a positive home or school environment, you’ll hear phrases that affirm you for being smart and kind. It’s not foreign to hear a two-year-old being called a math wizard. But most people aren’t properly celebrated for being exceptional. Unfortunately, many students hear words that undermine their intelligence or cause them to see little value in themselves. In addition to the words said, the words that are never used to describe us also determine how we feel about ourselves. You can claim these titles and traits if you choose to, but if no one in your life has called you a scientist or a mathematician or you’ve never been described as having the science-mindedness traits, you may have determined your role in STEM based on that.

3. Write down your science mantra

To counteract this phenomenon, it’s essential to reverse-engineer yourself out of thinking you’re not smart or good enough and into who you are and who you can be. Each new frontier on the college journey is a new opportunity to reinvent yourself, and this process begins with one basic step. Write down a “science mantra” that begins with all the things you are and ends with “I am a scientist” or “I am STEM.” A student I worked with who was told by her family that she was an artist her whole life came up with the following: “I am curious, creative, thoughtful, and artistic. Because of that, I am a scientist.” Now, she’s a thriving Pre-med student at a well-respected institution after absolutely hating science in high school. She engineered herself into a STEM person. Writing your own mantra down, printing it on a poster for your room, and saying it to yourself in moments of doubt will begin the process of reclaiming who you are.

4. Find STEM people and make them your people

Most students who haven’t found success in STEM don’t know many (or sometimes any) people who are thriving in these disciplines. The only relationships to these subjects they have are through teachers who’ve either made them feel like they can’t do well or who’ve been traumatized by their own negative STEM experiences. One powerful way to reconnect with STEM subjects—while also making necessary networking connections that will serve you well in college and beyond—is to reach out to those who actually work in these jobs. Many STEM professionals I know are interested in mentoring young students or describing their research to young people. Unfortunately, they don’t know how to reach out to students, and students don’t know they can reach out to them.

Do the work to find people who do the work

Think of an industry you love and try to find a STEM person who works there. Once you’re aware of and forge relationships with the people in these professions, your outlook on the area of study may completely change. Students I’ve worked with have found and built relationships with engineers who work at sneaker companies and math experts who work on video games. They’ve earned internships and even paid jobs that began with a bit of research and sending an email to share their admiration and start a conversation. Building relationships with actual professionals demystifies these disciplines and reveals how STEM exists in much more powerful and exciting ways than you may realize. You’ll learn from these experts about what they do and what it takes to work in a STEM profession. These amazing people in your network may also write you a college recommendation letter or offer you sound advice about careers based on experience, not conjecture.

5. Experiment and embrace failure

When aspiring college students tell me about their awful experiences with STEM, I often say “congratulations,” then ask what kind of STEM work they’ve done. What have you built? What experiments have you done? What inventions have you dreamed up? What designs have you made? What broken objects have you fixed? They often look at me perplexed because they’ve never associated failure with something to be congratulated for. But in STEM, failing consistently is part of the process. Failing a class usually indicates that you did poorly on tests, but it does not indicate your potential for a future in STEM. If classes actually reflected the STEM discipline, the opportunity to keep retaking and redesigning the tests would be part of them. In the field, we embrace failure and consistently “fail forward.” What we learn from each failure or misstep helps us improve and get to a more concrete conclusion. Failing is fun because it leads to figuring out what to do differently next time. If you failed a test, you failed at something someone else designed for you to judge your knowledge or intelligence—and it ends there. A true STEM student doesn’t necessarily work well within that type of structure.

Give yourself the opportunity to make, design, create, fix, solve, and—most importantly—fail in order to sharpen your science-mindedness and STEM preparedness. Research experiments to replicate or find an old laptop to break apart and put back together. Then write about this experience in your college essays. This type of natural STEM identity is much more favorable to an institution than a student who only memorizes information but can’t do anything with it.

Graduates with these types of attitudes, beliefs, and identities are in high demand, and STEM jobs have some of the lowest unemployment rates. These careers don’t always involve working in a laboratory or having a fancy degree. They simply require college degrees in STEM or a related field and a willingness to think creatively and apply science-mindedness to what many are calling the “jobs of the future.” Past failures or bad experiences shouldn’t lock you out of reclaiming your STEM identity. These steps will get you started on the right path toward amazing opportunities, rewarding careers, lifelong learning, and a brighter future.

By Ailynn Infante
Ailynn Infante