Skip to main content
Home » STEM Education » Why Tutoring Is the Key to Getting More Students Into STEM
STEM Education

Why Tutoring Is the Key to Getting More Students Into STEM


From 2010-20, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projected that job opportunities in STEM — science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — would grow by nearly 19%.

That’s compared to about 14% for all jobs, data suggest. STEM jobs include roles like mathematicians, nuclear engineers, biological scientists, and healthcare practitioners. 

It’s clear to see opportunities in STEM abound.

Yet, Brian Galvin, chief academic officer at Varsity Tutors, knows firsthand the real barriers to students pursuing fields of study in STEM.

Galvin referred to 2017 Pew Research data in which more than half of adults surveyed reported not pursuing STEM because “it’s hard.” 

That’s not untrue, Galvin pointed out, but the good news is students and their parents have tools at their disposal to make STEM more approachable. 

Embracing an exploratory attitude

Mistakes and disproven hypotheses are givens when working in STEM — anyone who works in these fields is well aware.  But for novices in STEM, these realities “can often feel like a battlefield of rejection,” Galvin said. 

You have to seek and tease out the successes in those failed experiments and wrong answers, Galvin said. But to do that, individual attention — namely from tutors — is essential.

“Tutors can find that understandable but pivotal mistake and both correct and celebrate it (‘you were so close and I can totally see why you did this’),” Galvin said. “They can create follow-up tasks for students to apply lessons and feel immediate successes. And they can ultimately steer STEM from a stressful right-or-wrong experience to an enjoyable exploration.”

Turning confusion into confidence

STEM can easily feel like an inaccessible, foreign language, Galvin said. That’s because its principles don’t show up in obvious ways in daily life, like names in history — think Roosevelt or Lincoln — do in places like on street signs and businesses.

“STEM,” he said, “hits students with a double-whammy: To understand the concepts, they often need to sift through unfamiliar notation and vocabulary. And if they struggle to even know what they’re reading or looking at, it’s easy to give up hope of actually understanding it.”

Again, that’s where tutoring can help. Tutors know when a student needs a breather from jargon, and can instead offer a real-world example for how the concept might play out. Tutors can also act as memory refreshers, reminding students what specific previously taught symbols or words mean, so that they can grasp the subject at hand now.

“The personal attention and expertise of a tutor can make sure the intimidating syntax of STEM doesn’t block understanding and get in the way of curiosity,” Galvin added.

Galvin also notes that a critical aspect of STEM is that it builds upon itself. This creates two critical needs for personalized intervention:

1. Identifying when someone has fallen behind 

“You can get clobbered by Shakespeare and it won’t affect your ability to read Steinbeck and Twain,” he said. “But if you’re not comfortable with algebra, you won’t be comfortable with higher-level math or physics classes. STEM subjects tend to follow a firm prerequisite path, so it’s critical that learners identify and fill gaps quickly. Falling behind simply makes catching up harder.”

2. Helping students see the trees first, so they can see the forest later

“As students grapple with the challenges of seemingly binary wrong answers, inaccessible notation and language, and a need to build skills that don’t quite connect to anything useful just yet, the attention of a tutor to build those connections to personal interests — to show that really incredible payoffs are coming — can be  instrumental in building and maintaining the persistence necessary to stick with STEM,” Galvin added.

As for those who come out on the other side with a career in STEM? They learn to love the very things about it they perceived as a challenge from the beginning. 

“It’s a process of trial-and-error and the coming together of various branches of knowledge to solve big problems,” Galvin said. “With some personalization and extra attention, what at first seems frustrating can become fascinating instead. STEM subjects just need a bit of extra support.”

Next article