Here at VISTA we talk about "inquiry-based learning" a lot. We've taught hundreds of K-12 teachers in Virginia on how to implement problem-based learning (or "real world learning" as Liana describes it) in their classrooms. We believe this approach is key to improving science achievement and drawing more bright minds into STEM fields.
Because science teaching in the past has included some in-class experiments, it's intuitive to think of science education as hands-on. But the problem-based approach goes beyond hands-on experiments by getting students to think creatively about solving a specific problem. Encouraging students to think through a problem and come up with their own solutions is one of the first steps to teaching them how to behave like scientists. When students see themselves acting and thinking like scientists, they can begin to picture themselves as scientists.
We've had a flood of feedback from teachers who have gone through our program, and not only do teachers report that the problem-based approach increases students' engagement and curiosity in science, but it increases theirs as well. I think we all understand that passionate teachers are most likely to spark passion in their students.
Interestingly, many of our teachers also report that there are many cross-curricular applications to problem-based learning. So while this approach may be critical to STEM, it can spill over into other subjects as well.
If there's a way to institutionalize passion for learning – in any subject – we believe inquiry-based, problem-based learning is that way.