Have you ever thought “I’m just not a math person”? If so, how are you at fixing snowmobiles?

The connection between backwood winter transportation and the quadratic equation may not be obvious to you, but some people would like to change that.

“Hopefully we’re relocating math into some outdoor recreational activities: ‘I know I can fix a snowmobile so if there’s math here, then I’m good at math!’” said Andrew Coppens, associate professor of education at UNH.

Coppens and colleague Jayson Seaman, chair of the Department of Recreation Management and Policy at UNH, were up at the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Highland Center in January working on an interesting experiment in using outdoor recreation to change rural kids’ attitude about the various school subjects – science, tech, engineering, math – that go under the clumsy acronym STEM.

The project was created by CAST, a nonprofit education research and development organization, in partnership with UNH. It’s using a $300,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. Eric Feldborg, a former STEM and career training director for the state Department of Education, is a consultant.

The idea is to take rural kids’ enthusiasm for things like skiing, riding ATVs, hunting and boating, and help them realize the science-y underpinnings of these activities. The hope is that they’ll then embrace the STEM approach which can create a skilled workforce to boost rural economies, giving young adults a reason not to move away.

“It’s built on the fact that northern New Hampshire youth participate in outdoor recreation at around 20% more than the national average. So there’s interest. You don’t have to try to get youth to participate in outdoor recreation – they already are,” said Coppens.

The timing for this is good, as New Hampshire is coming to realize the value of using outdoor recreation to boost our rural areas, which like most rural areas in the country are facing economic and demographic headwinds. The state Department of Education has added outdoor recreation to the list of competencies that should be included in New Hampshire’s career and technical education programs.

Before we go into details, a note: I almost never write about ways to interest teens in classes about STEM topics, those ways of understanding the world which depend on quantification more than qualification. That’s partly because education is a whole different beat that would take over this column if I wasn’t careful, but mostly it’s because STEM programs too often have a “spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down” approach that rubs me the wrong way: These kids hate science but if we drape colors and songs and trendy topics on top, maybe they won’t notice that it involves numbers!

This project, called STEM Pathways for Rural Youth, intrigued me because it takes the opposite route, starting with fun stuff that already exists and finding STEM within it.

One component is to get teens themselves to find any STEM aspects within their favorite activities using a mobile app called ORfolio, to complete “challenges” and make STEM connections in outdoor recreation.

“Instead of adults telling them to put their phones away, we’re telling them to use their phones,” said Coppens. “They were engaged the entire time, right on task.”

Another reason for them to keep engaged was money: The 54 teens, chosen from 225 responses to surveys given in schools around Coos County, are being paid $25 to participate. You need an incentive to sit inside when it’s a beautiful snow-filled day outside.

Actually, they didn’t sit inside, at least not the whole time. The session cleverly used the coolest job in the North Country – search and rescue, complete with a dog – as a lure. It’s a good role model because that job requires more than stamina and the right clothing; you can’t find people who are lost in the mountains if you don’t understand grid networks and geographic information system and other tech topics.

Another aspect of this project is that it’s not designed to be a top-down operation.

“We’re trying to figure out how to take a more decentralized approach – give them tools and have them figure out how to use them,” said Seaman. He pointed to a building-trades app that lets people document activities at a job site, “tagging certain competencies that they believe they’re demonstrating.”

They’ll be wrapping up work with youth and adult participants by the fall and expect a closing event around November. Applications for follow-up funding are in the works.

Is all this going to get anywhere? I have no idea.

At some point students need to sit down and understand the periodic table or inverse-square ratios or the Krebs cycle or trigonometry – the hard-to-digest details that turned them away from classes in the first place. This program sounds like a way to overcome that reluctance but darned if I can tell.

Despite the “those who can’t do, teach” canard, teaching is really difficult, a flesh-and-blood version of programmers’ NP-hard problem. Getting inside the heads of a roomful of people is a task of incalculable complexity, while changing their outlook of teenagers requires such an amalgamation of knowledge, theory, experience, guesswork and intuition that I wouldn’t know where to start.

Starting with a wonky snowmobile is certainly worth a shot.

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