Implementing STEM with Project-Based Learning

Ask a high school student how he or she typically feels at school, and the answer you’ll likely hear is “tired,” closely followed by “stressed” and “bored.”

A study by Yale’s Center researchers from the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and the Yale Child Study Center found that nearly 75% of the students’ self-reported feelings related to school were negative.

These results mirror the feelings of many adults when looking back at their own school experience.  Most of these results involve students passively sitting at their desks while teachers are lecturing about a topic.  

The reality of many of our students’ school experiences, and the demands of a 21st-century knowledge-based economy, have forced schools to adopt new pedagogies as well as disciplines.  This has resulted in an increased emphasis on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education in order to show students how these disciplines are applied in real-world contexts.  Schools have also begun implementing project-based learning lessons in order to help students become more active participants in their learning.  Wherever there is STEM, you’ll normally find project-based learning – STEM lessons are often implemented via project-based learning lessons and activities.  The hope is that presenting authentic, real-world challenges will capture student interest, and the interactive and collaborative nature of project-based learning will maintain their interest.  

These new demands, however, don’t change old challenges.  Reading has been taught in school for hundreds of years, but there is still much controversy over its instruction.  Many teachers struggle with teaching math due to a lack of understanding of how algorithms work.  

Somewhere in the midst of the new demands and the old challenges come teachers being asked to implement both STEM and project-based learning.  STEM, of course, presents the old challenges of teaching science and math, but also the new demands of technology and engineering.  Additionally, STEM is not just a discipline, but it is also a pedagogy; how it is taught is just as important as what is taught.   The following will discuss and attempt to clearly identify what STEM education is, what is effective project-based learning, and how STEM and project-based learning can be implemented together.  

STEM education 

The goal of STEM education is to have students gain understanding and knowledge through the connecting of concepts from each of the STEM domains.  In this sense, students do not just know more about math and/or science, but instead, they understand how math and science concepts are related, and importantly, are able to articulate the usefulness of those integrated concepts.  This integrated STEM knowledge allows students to identify deep, structural characteristics of a particular STEM problem, challenge, or idea, thus allowing the students to move beyond surface-level understandings.  

All, of course, much easier said than done.  Connecting ideas across STEM domains is challenging when students lack background knowledge or have vastly different levels of background knowledge in each individual STEM domain. Second, as anyone who has spent any time in a classroom knows, students do not readily or naturally integrate their knowledge.  Thus the reason why STEM is not just a discipline but also a pedagogy.  

Including Technology and Engineering

Science and Math are embedded in classrooms at all levels (elementary, middle, high schools), but schools, particularly urban and rural schools, can struggle with identifying ways to include technology and engineering.  Incorporating the engineering design process as a systematic way to solve problems can put STEM learning in an authentic context, can help students make connections across different STEM domains, and also can help students build upon their current understanding and interest in STEM.  

Most teachers are familiar with the scientific method as a result of their own schooling. The engineering design process is similar to the scientific method but also has some important differences.  The biggest difference is, simply, that scientists investigate whereas engineers create.  The engineering design process needs to take into account limitations and constraints and the examination of many possible solutions.  The engineering design process also relies on multiple attempts and revisions when trying to solve a problem. While there are differences, both the scientific method and the engineering design process are extremely important — one should not serve as a substitute for the other. The Next Generation Science Standards call for both science and engineering practices.  Students should be given the opportunity to work on a solution for a real-world challenge, while also investigating a particular scientific phenomenon.  

Discussion of incorporating technology into classrooms has often been reduced to the purchase of technology devices (Chromebooks, iPads, etc.).  This has often gone poorly.  Thankfully, the conversation is shifting from students just using technology to students creating with technology.  This can lead many a teacher to ask, “Is creating with technology computer science?  Is computer science a part of STEM?”

In 2015, Congress passed the STEM Education Act, which officially made computer science a part of STEM.  This move by Congress is evidence of the fact that computer science is a fundamental part of STEM education. Moreover, how science and math are practiced today, in the real-world, has changed dramatically since the introduction of computer science.  More evidence comes again with the Next Generation Science Standards, which include eight distinct scientific practices, one of them being “using mathematics and computational thinking.” Presenting computer science as an integrated STEM subject adds the further important benefit of presenting computer science as an authentic course that is attached to real-world applications.  In this manner, computer science, math, and science all end up enriching one another – using math and science to enrich computer science and using computer science to make science and math more engaging and authentic. 

STEM pedagogy

As we mentioned earlier, how STEM is taught is often just as important as what is taught.  This has led to the introduction of project-based learning in many STEM classrooms.  However, this has also led to more questions.  Is project-based learning the same as inquiry-based learning or discovery learning?  Does it replace other types of teaching, like direct instruction?  Who has the time to navigate through all of this stuff?

Project-based learning is a broad category that can be applied to different learning environments.  There are, however, some fundamental characteristics:

  • Students are working in collaborative groups
  • The learning is organized around solving a real-world problem or investigating a real-world phenomenon
  • The learning involves the creation of an actual product
  • The teacher acts as a facilitator during the learning 
  • There are often multiple “solutions” to the activity 

These characteristics should make it clear why the demand for project-based learning continues to grow in schools.  When done well, project-based learning can increase student engagement while also providing the best vehicle to foster integrated STEM learning.  What then constitutes project-based learning done well?  

First off, project-based learning does not mean an abandoning of direct instruction.  The research is clear that when students are engaging with concepts for the first time, direct instruction accompanied by practice and feedback is very effective.  It is important to note that direct instruction does not mean lecture; instead, direct instruction should be viewed as providing students with feedback that helps them to bridge the gap between their current understanding and what is aimed to be understood.  

Second, the collaborative and active nature of project-based learning does not guarantee learning gains.  If we want students to apply what they have previously learned and to create new learning, students should be required to explain and elaborate upon their learning while receiving feedback from the teacher that includes what an optimal solution could potentially include. The teacher can remind students of the specific goals of the activity 

Third, the role of the teacher is often given very short shrift within this process.  What does a teacher actually do when they are facilitating?   Does the teacher have the necessary content knowledge in order to provide students with quality feedback?  The vast majority of STEM teachers, especially in elementary and middle school, do not have degrees in, for example, computer science and engineering.  Therefore, it becomes of paramount importance that teachers, through some combination of professional development and teacher support materials, receive the content knowledge needed in order for them to effectively facilitate project-based learning activities.  

Conclusion

An important realization is that STEM is both a discipline and a pedagogy.  In order to achieve the goal of integrated STEM learning students have to be given the opportunity to engage in projects that include multiple STEM domains.  Students should be provided with prolonged exposure to STEM learning, often through the structure of project-based learning.  Effective project-based learning includes proper scaffolding and opportunities for the students to elaborate and explain their learning.  This type of learning helps to address two challenges that schools face today: turning student apathy into student engagement and preparing students to participate in today’s knowledge-based economy. 

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