STEM Solutions that Work

Just when you thought STEM couldn’t get any bigger, The New York Times recently identified the acronym and all it stands for, as the national priority in education. With proficiency in STEM hailed as vital to generating economic growth and advancing scientific innovation, STEM has become a cultural force; similar to celebrities so popular they no longer need the last name. Indeed, it’s a movement, with a meaning all its own.

The STEM campaign has been underway for years, championed by policymakers across the ideological spectrum, embraced in schools everywhere and by organizations ranging from the YWCA to the Boy Scouts. By now, the term first popularized and promoted by the National Science Foundation is used as a descriptive identifier. She’s a STEM, usually meant as a compliment, suggests someone who has a leg up in the college admissions sweepstakes.

The popularity of STEM has made it a coveted topic of study for educational researchers who seek to both maximize its economic benefits and address – however finite – its limitations. They’re challenged with finding innovative solutions to problems like the differential between the percent of women receiving the bachelor’s degrees in STEM subjects 50% and the percent of women actually holding STEM jobs a mere 30%.

There are also more theoretical issues, like defining the process of problem-solving in the 21st century a process now closely linked to engineering and technology. Envisioned this way, competencies in engineering and technology become maps for seeing the world through a problem-solving lens, and applying STEM skills becomes akin to nurturing a more capable and confident mindset in general. Yet, such high ideals for the transferability of these skills rely on placing a heavy emphasis on computer science competencies that, while highly sought after, can remain somewhat elusive to students. How can teachers begin to integrate the ideals of creativity and innovation – ideals so central to computer science itself into inspiring lesson plans rather than limiting the teaching of computer science to the pure use of computers as a tool?

If those challenges aren’t enough to make you feel overwhelmed, imagine then, how teachers are to access and incorporate all of the fruits of these ambitious research goals once they’re reached. After all, the right STEM solution addresses practical application with intrinsic guidance on how best to highlight those deep connections between STEM subjects and their relation to the very building blocks of human thought. Connections which, ideally, may increase student learning, interest, and achievement in ways that, much like STEM, may expand beyond what was thought possible.

With that in mind, Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Academy has partnered with Robomatter and the University of Pittsburgh’s Learning Research and Development Center to identify the characteristics of an effective, ambitious STEM educational solution.

1. Robust Tools

Great curriculum tools do more than just aid in teaching, they can unlock the potential of the STEM classroom itself. Educational robotics is an example of the interdisciplinary applications necessary to aid students in applying broad and important concepts in different domains, ultimately building concrete understandings of abstract STEM concepts. Ultimately, these tools ask students to approach problem-solving itself in a new way, which, as our previous research has illustrated, leads to more effective problem-solving and the ability to transfer the core fundamentals of a specific knowledge base to more general applications. Being able to use math to program a robot to move precise distances becomes a feat perhaps not considered a possible achievement before. One of the real values of these tools then becomes the empowerment they offer students in feeling confident to approach any problem with optimism and an eye for innovation.

2. Quality Professional Development

Championing innovative teaching approaches that match the enthusiasm towards the promise of STEM means expanding the importance of teacher development as well. Professional development becomes a new priority in the world of STEM classrooms; places which, demand as much in the way of revolutionary thought from teachers as from the learners. Gone are the days of seeking one narrow answer; today’s teachers are asked to help students, developmental models, create comprehensive and comprehensible solutions; and of course, master the STEM subjects themselves. But as for creating these vast jumps in critical thinking and transferable problem-solving abilities, what does it all mean, let alone how do we achieve it? The researchers working with Robomatter are discovering just that and acknowledging the professional development of the teachers themselves as central to these loftier STEM goals.

3. Student Motivation

But even with all the STEM hype, students don’t enter these portals of learning a fresh canvas destined for innovative thought. They may think they come prepared for class, bringing with them their books, paper, and pencils (perhaps even an electronic device or two), but they’re not without their preconceptions about how things work in the world, including those subtle (and not so subtle) differences between how robots and humans react. It is often observed that when students are asked to walk to the door, they will walk to the door and stop. They don’t have to be explicitly told to stop, it is inferred. These same students are often shocked to observe that when first programming a robot to move, it needs to be explicitly told to stop, for a robot, or any computer, can only do exactly what it is told. It cannot impressively infer as humans can well, not yet anyway. Until then, as students are introduced to current insights and information in the classroom, they are confronting new ways of viewing the world and themselves. As for the teachers who provoke such tightly-held suppositions – even those of wide-eyed and earnest students – they must constantly engage the learners’ minds throughout the learning process. While using robust tools like robotics may provide the impetus to consider such fundamental changes in how one views the world, without proper lesson design, the initial pull of robotics can’t sustain all we’re asking of students. We need the kind of lasting motivation only effective lesson design can provide.

4. Specific Curriculum Goals

Central to an integrated STEM lesson is its ability to capture many different learning standards. These lessons would be more beneficial, however, if they emphasized a few, targeted learning standards, and these standards were made explicit, to both teachers and students. These standards can then be built incrementally. Students can be introduced to the standards via direct instruction, with the instruction fading as they gain in the ability to apply these standards independently in activities. Application, of course, isn’t limited to the lesson but is utilized across different activities, endeavors that begin simply and grow in complexity as the students gain more experience.

5. Scaffold building for students

In construction projects, scaffolds are often used as a tool to provide support by extending the area in which someone can work, allowing someone to complete a task that would otherwise be impossible. Scaffolding, in an educational context, provides the same benefits. Curriculum tools should act as such, supporting both teachers and students by making the topics of the lesson, their context, and the success criteria for the tasks the students are performing clear for all involved, with greater gains made possible by worthy challenges and innovative tools. A shared understanding of activities is critical. The video shared above, in addition to providing a strong theme, helps set the stage for both teachers and students by introducing a challenge motivating enough to engage students’ healthy drive, as well as providing the next set of instructions that will introduce the skills needed to solve such a feat. Curriculum tools, like Robot Virtual Worlds and ROBOTC Graphical, should also help to scaffold lessons by creating a low barrier of entry. The best tools provide all students with an opportunity for success, as well as a high ceiling, and allow students to explore multiple solutions to a given problem. Embedding formative assessment throughout a lesson helps students complete tasks that would be impossible otherwise by providing them with feedback and an opportunity to reflect during the process, not afterward. Additionally, formative assessment provides teachers with the means and the opportunity to give students the individualized and targeted coaching they need to complete a complex task. These tools and the opportunities they afford can extend the reach of STEM education and all its possibilities.

Sources Cited:

Lohr, Steve. “Where the STEM Jobs Are (and Where They Aren’t).” The New York Times, The New York Times, 1 Nov. 2017,

“Physical Computing in STEM Education.” ACM Digital Library, ACM,