“In a world that’s becoming increasingly complex, where success is driven not only by what you know, but by what you can do with what you know, it’s more important than ever for our youth to be equipped with the knowledge and skills to solve tough problems, gather and evaluate evidence, and make sense of information.” – U.S. Department of Education
STEM—Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math—education is increasingly important in today’s tech-driven world. STEM-related jobs are expected to grow by 13% between 2017 and 2027 (compared to 9% growth in jobs overall). However, a lack of qualified workers means that in 2018, 2.4 million STEM jobs will go unfilled. Further, STEM education isn’t only important because of the jobs available to those who studied the field. In fact, STEM education teaches problem-solving, critical thinking, and out-of-the-box creativity. As a result, there is a need for effective STEM education and programming in high schools across America.
The Center for P-16 Research and Collaboration (P-16) focuses on improving educational access and attainment for underserved students in several counties across Indiana. We highlight STEM subjects because we recognize the need for it in schools. In our Workplace Simulation Projects (WSPs), we highlight STEM programming to ensure that students can participate in a growing workforce, as well as solve problems in our tech-enhanced society.
Below, we’ve outlined a few ways to ensure effective STEM programming in schools—whether elementary school, middle school, or high school.
“Hands-on, minds-on” is the new mantra of effective STEM teachers.
Kids learn best when their hands are involved. In fact, according to Ben Mardell, PhD, a researcher with Project Zero at Harvard University, “Kids learn through all their senses, and they like to touch and manipulate things.” Interacting physically with their learning materials allows kids to activate their brains and retain information. Using this approach to STEM education means kids will be more engaged in learning and feel more connected to the material.
An Interdisciplinary Approach
An interdisciplinary approach to STEM education is one way to ensure effective programming. Rather than existing in a vacuum, STEM interacts with and is dependent upon other areas of learning. Problems are rarely exclusively science-based or math-based. Indeed, solving a problem requires a combination of STEM fields, as well as humanities and social science knowledge. With an interdisciplinary approach, STEM education can more accurately mirror real-life problem solving.
STEM role models that look like STEM students
According to NPR, studies have found that students report feeling more cared for and more interested in subjects when the teacher looks like them. When the opposite is true—that is, when students had no teachers that looked like them—the students reported putting forth less effort in school and had less aspirations for college. This is particularly important for populations who are already underrepresented in STEM—like women and racial minorities. P-16’s WSPs work through this by inviting STEM professional volunteers (volunteers from local STEM businesses) that look like the students (female engineers, African American scientists, etc.) If local volunteers aren’t available and teachers do not look like the student population they serve, they can also incorporate role models through literature—for example, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Brian Mealer.
Real world contexts for learning
Students are far more engaged with the content of their learning when they are given real world problems to solve. Even better, when these problems are ones they can relate to. Working on real-life problems can enhance students’ problem-solving skills, and is really at the core of STEM education and programming. Students can design or create devices that fulfill some personal or social need and/or that solve problems—for example, solar energy, wind turbines, access to clean water. The more realistic, relatable, and realizable the problems are, the better.
People give Harry Potter all the credit for slaying Voldemort, but Ron, Hermione and the rest of Hogwarts were just as integral. All that to say, collaboration is an important aspect of problem-solving, and therefore, STEM programming. It prepares students for the real world and also gets them to trust their own opinions and respect those of others. According to Andrew B. Raupp, founder of STEM.org, “embracing collaboration over competition is more than just “doing group work”; it’s about helping students identify as respectful thinkers who aren’t competing for knowledge but, rather, discovering it together.”
Student inquiry is at the heart of effective STEM education. Providing students with choices within STEM lessons that allow them to follow their natural curiosity increases student engagement. Student questions, not teacher questions, should be driving the lessons.
Edglossary.org defines scaffolding in education as “a variety of instructional techniques used to move students progressively toward stronger understanding and, ultimately, greater independence in the learning process.” Scaffold learning helps provide a supportive learning environment for students, especially for not content and concepts. This teaching style incentivizes students to learn on their own and claim their mastery over a topic. STEM tasks can start simple and add complexity. The “I do, we do, you do” technique is a successful one used in STEM classrooms.
Teachers who are facilitators
One major key to effective STEM programming is effective teachers. Not only is it beneficial for teachers to look like students they instruct, but teachers should also be facilitators and guides for learning (instead of the traditional “chalkers and talkers”). Rather than lecture or preach at students and tell them how to solve problems, it is more effective for teachers to be guides who get students to think critically. Often, effective STEM programming begins by asking students the right questions.