Learning becomes more inviting for kids when it's hands-on.

Before faculty at the all-girl Ellis School could figure out how to make their science and math classes better for students, they had to know what not to do.

“Students can appreciate science and get real hyped up about it,” says physics teacher Sam Rauhala. But, he says, “there are fewer, faster ways to kill joy in kids about science than a rote lesson in algebra.”

So he flipped the script—and flipped his classroom—so that he no longer spends 80 percent of his time lecturing his high-schoolers about the basics. Now he and the class spend 80 percent of their time with hands-on experimentation. The results have been so good that he and other Ellis faculty are now adapting new teaching methods to other STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) classrooms.

The first year of Ellis’ study showed that active learning, which includes group projects, helps kids learn more and better in physics and engineering classes. Girls in these classes also believed more often that science was useful in their lives, and were more likely to continue studying subjects even when the subjects seemed tough. The girls also understood that a deeper knowledge of science was important—an attitude that is especially tough to instill in students who don’t believe they are good at STEM subjects.

Ellis charted how engaged students were in class and even their nonverbal attitudes by taping classes for study by University of Pittsburgh scientists. They also noted that many more girls from the physics class chose to take STEM electives this fall.

Ellis’s new Active Classroom for Girls certainly helped, says Director of Innovation Lisa Abel-Palmieri, with its new high-tech equipment geared to more hands-on teaching and learning. Rauhala now spends most of his time working directly with students on large or small lab experiments. “I’m going around poking and prodding and making sure the girls are ready to go on to the next step,” he says. “They come in and it’s all about what questions do they have, what lessons can they tease out of the hands-on approach.”

“We want to make sure that girls stick to these STEM areas” through upper grades, higher education and careers, says Abel-Palmieri, “and that this can be replicated in STEM classes in general.”

Rauhala’s physics classes held 29 girls divided between two sections. He acknowledges that putting active learning in larger classrooms “can be very difficult.”

And for an entire school to adopt the method “would take a significant shift in teaching and learning,” says Abel-Palmieri. “But we know it is worth it. We definitely think this methodology can be replicated in co-ed classrooms.”

Marty Levine

Marty Levine's journalism has appeared in Time, Salon.com and throughout Pennsylvania and has won awards from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, The Press...