From Definition to Practice
Defining STEM is the easy part; implementing
STEM education on a large scale is more challenging. Part of the problem is the widespread
confusion about what STEM actually looks like
in the classroom. (Bybee, 2013).
STEM teaching can take various forms. It
doesn’t necessarily have to incorporate all four
of the STEM disciplines every time, and it’s not
always problem- or project-based. But all STEM
learning does have one thing in common—it
gives students opportunities to apply the skills
and knowledge they have learned or are in the
process of learning. Application is at the heart of
STEM education. When students ask, “Why do I
have to learn this?” a STEM experience provides
them with an answer.
Here’s one example of a STEM unit (Vasquez,
Sneider, & Comer, 2013). A group of 5th grade
students are learning about force and motion in
science and about data analysis in math. They
work in teams to design roller coaster tracks out
of cardboard boxes and tubes. As a first step,
they use a measuring tape, marbles, masking
tape, and several sections of plastic track to learn
how a marble moves along the track. They are
instructed to measure, in one-second intervals,
how the marble accelerates as it rolls down the
inclined track. The students plan and conduct
the experiment without detailed instructions.
Each group compiles its data into a graph,
applying the data analysis methods they have
studied to choose the appropriate type of graph
(for example, bar or line) and what data to use
(mean, median, or mode).
Then the class compiles all the data into
one graph that represents the data from all the
groups. To do so, they have to debate and decide
issues related to the science and math concepts
they are learning. For instance, the students see
that one group’s set of data differs greatly from
the others, and on further investigation they
learn that the reason is because that group chose
a different level of incline for its design. Thus,
instead of just being taught the statistical concept
of outliers, the students gained an authentic
understanding of this concept.
During the roller coaster activities, these
students are experiencing transdisciplinary
integration—more commonly referred to as
problem-based or project-based learning—which
is the most advanced level of STEM teaching and
learning. Transdisciplinary integration, grounded
in constructivist theory (Fortus, Krajcik, Dershimerb, Marx, & Mamlok-Naamand, 2005), has
been shown to improve students’ achievement
in higher-level cognitive tasks through the application of scientific processes and mathematical
problem solving (Satchwell & Loepp, 2002).
Throughout this transdisciplinary experience,
the students were applying the new content they
had learned in their mathematics (data analysis)
Space, you see, is just enormous—just enormous.
Let’s imagine, for purposes of edification and entertainment, that we are
about to go on a journey by rocket ship. We won’t go terribly far—just to the
edge of our own solar system—but we need to get a fix on how big a place
space is and what a small part of it we occupy.
Now the bad news, I’m afraid, is that we won’t be home for supper.
—Bill Bryson from A Short History of Nearly Everything [
BEATRIZ GASCON J/SHUTTERSTOCK
All STEM learning has one thing
in common—it gives students
opportunities to apply the skills and
knowledge they have learned.