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“What Do I Need Science For? I’m Going Into Fashion!"

Teachers must encourage STEM learning through personal relevance.

By Benjamin C. Heddy, University of Southern California

“What do I need science for? I’m going to be a fashion designer!” This is a statement I heard from a student at an all-girl middle school in Los Angeles. And, I must say that such statements were typical in my time interviewing young women on whether or not they were interested in science, technology, engineering, and math (together known as “STEM”). 

This was odd to me at first. As a learning scientist, I see science and math as being relevant to everything—nature, social interactions, monetary transactions, and even fashion design. And yet, students don’t typically make connections between science and things that they like (especially things that occur out of school). The more I study this area, the more I’m seeing that perceived personal relevance can have a dramatic effect on academic interest and achievement in STEM.

For instance, the future fashionista that I described did not perceive any connection between STEM and her life’s passion, fashion design (which she apparently knew in 7th grade). However, I can think of many connections; materials used for making fabric are composed of molecules, atoms, and chemical compounds, all of which are concepts learned in chemistry class. In fact, maybe she could learn a bit about chemistry and develop a new type of material that takes the fashion world by storm. As for technology, she will likely be using computer programs to design clothes, shoes, or purses long before she begins using scissors to cut material. Further, engineers are beginning to combine technology and clothing to create items such as smart watches, Google glasses, and digital neck ties. And finally, mathematics will be an essential part of the creative process when she is required to make precise cuts. A mathematically imprecise cut and a dress may show up on Joan Rivers’ “worst-dressed list,” which could ruin a fashion designer’s career. 

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Despite these connections, the question still remains: How can we help this aspiring designer recognize the personal relevance of STEM, and thus increase interest and achievement through her academic career?

Research suggests that teachers who help students make connections between classroom content and their everyday lives can increase personal relevance and interest among learners (Hidi & Renninger, 2006). But, what does it look like when a student makes such a connection? Kevin Pugh and his colleagues (2010) discuss a concept known as transformative experience (or TE). TE occurs when students apply what they learn in class to experiences they have in their everyday lives. For instance, Girod and Wong (2002) found that when learning about types of rocks (e.g. metamorphic, sedimentary, and igneous), students learned in such a way that they applied geology concepts to their out-of-school experience. One student even said that she couldn’t bear to skip stones anymore because every rock has a story (and when she was skipping stones she was throwing away a lot of great stories). This example shows how science can become personally relevant to a child engaging in an everyday behavior, thus increasing interest. TE could theoretically be used to help our fashion designer make connections between STEM concepts and the world of fashion. 

Researchers are exploring teaching techniques to help students make personally relevant connections to STEM by outlining parallels between classroom content and everyday life. Examples of teaching techniques to facilitate personal relevance are Teaching for Transformative Experience in Science (Pugh et al., 2010; Heddy & Sinatra, 2013), expansive framing (Engle et al., 2012), culturally relevant pedagogy (Rueda, 2010), and connected learning (Ito et al., 2013). The common theme between all of these instructional models is that they attempt to encourage application of classroom content to everyday experience, which in turn can enhance recognition of personal relevance. No matter what method is used, research shows the positive impact that facilitating personal relevance can have on not only interest but achievement as well.

Encouraging students to find personal relevance may be an important tool for increasing student interest and achievement in STEM...even for fashionistas!

To contact Benjamin Heddy directly, please email


Engle, R. A., Lam, D. P., Meyer, X. S., & Nix, S. E. (2012). How does expansive framing promote transfer? Several proposed explanations and a research agenda for investigating them. Educational Psychologist, 47(3), 215-231.

Girod, M., & Wong, D. (2002). An aesthetic (Deweyan) perspective on science learning: Case studies of three fourth graders. The Elementary School Journal, 102(3), 199-224.

Heddy, B. C. & Sinatra, G. M. (2013). Transforming misconceptions: Using transformative experience to promote positive affect and conceptual change in students learning about biological evolution. Science Education, 97(5), 723-744.

Hidi, S., & Renninger, K. A. (2006). The four-phase model of interest development. Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 111-127.

Ito, M., Guierres, K., Livingstone, S., Penuel, B., Rhodes, J., Salen, K., Sefton-Green, S., & Watkins, S. C. (2013) Connected Learning: An agenda for research and design. Irvine, CA: Digital Media and Learning Research Hub. 

Pugh, K. J., Linnenbrink-Garcia, L., Koskey, K. L. K., Stewart, V. C., & Manzey, C. (2010). Motivation, learning, and transformative experience: A study of deep engagement in science. Science Education, 94, 1–28.

Rueda, R. (2010). Cultural perspectives in reading: Theory and research. In Kamil, M.L., Pearson, P.D., Moje, E.B., & Afflerbach, P.P. (Eds.). Handbook of reading research (Vol. IV). pp. 84-103. New York, NY: Routledge.

Wade George is the Director of Communications for the American Psychological Association, Division of Educational Psychology.


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