But acronyms can be a double-edged sword. While the acronym STEM (or STEAM, for those who want to include the arts) has become almost a buzzword, very few people understand what it is that makes science and engineering so important: scientists and engineers are creators who evaluate and analyze their world to extend human knowledge and overcome human challenges.
And it’s not hard to see why. We don’t have to look any further than many K-12 classrooms to see why there is such a gap in understanding who scientists and engineers really are.
Teaching the History of Science Isn’t Really Teaching Science
As science has grown into K-12 time on learning, most classrooms have focused on the history of science and engineering. As students get older, the traditional model of instruction solidifies -- as content specialist teachers explain, model, and tell the facts of increasingly complex phenomena. The traditional kit or textbook supports the idea that it is sufficient for students to learn about what scientists have discovered and solutions engineers have made. This is a recipe for rote memorization and recall.
It’s no wonder that many students begin eliminating STEM-related career choices as they approach middle school.
Perhaps the rejection of a traditional science class is a sign that a career of rote recall isn’t that appealing to students who accurately see facts as easily accessible in an internet age. If the traditional science and engineering class were accurate portrayals of these fields, I’d have to agree with them. But of course this isn’t what science and engineering are like in the real world.
Contrary to traditional K-12 instruction, science is not defined by potions, butterflies, or rocks and minerals. Science is learning how to think critically and develop data to answer questions. Likewise, engineering isn’t about building things. It is about identifying and solving problems through a process of prototyping.
Challenging Students to Exceed Their Skill
STEM and STEAM. Those easy-to-remember, simple-to-understand, and clearly applicable acronyms may be an ironic sign that many classrooms default to lower order thinking because it’s comfortable and familiar. But real science and engineering practices are more closely tied to higher order thinking skills: creating, evaluating and analyzing. These are skills that result from productive struggle and determination. As you might have guessed, these are not skills developed well in a traditional textbook and templated experiment environment.
As an educator I have become a proponent of Angela Duckworth’s definition of rigor: where challenge exceeds skill. When students are challenged to be scientists and engineers, they encounter challenges that exceed their skills, and this is where real growth and learning happen.
When students learn science and engineering as scientists and engineers in the classroom, they are doing so much more than memorizing facts. In this model, the approach is: “You are expected to be a scientist, and we think and struggle as scientists.” As they do this, they’re developing critical thinking skills that will empower them to independently and collaboratively solve problems and answer questions.
This is completely different from the more traditional model of “I do, you do, we do,” which removes opportunity for skills development. If I do it and then we do it, what is left for you to do or learn?
The Next Generation Inquiry Model of Instruction: a More Valuable and Skillful Role for Teachers
Instead of traditionally getting between a student and the content, next generation teachers need to act as skillful coaches. What does this mean? It means helping students learn skills and then coaching them on how to use those skills to engage appropriately as scientists and engineers. It means consistently ratcheting up the challenge as the skills develop.
Next generation teachers redirect and monitor students’ practice, hold students accountable at regular checkpoints, and communicate clear expectations. The next generation classroom is a place for small teams of students to answer questions and solve problems as scientists and engineers would -- gaining experience performing the expectations of the standards.
Support for this approach comes from the Next Generation Science Standards, which build on work done by the National Academies of Science and Engineering, the National Research Council, and the National Institutes of Health. These new standards are squarely aimed at students learning in a three-dimensional environment, specifically merging content and skills together so students can build a framework of understanding and an ability to solve problems and answer questions outside of direct instruction.
This, then, is our big challenge. We need to make sure that STEM in the classroom goes beyond a history lesson. We need to recognize that a good science and engineering education doesn’t only teach content and it doesn’t only teach skills. Instead, it teaches students how to develop and use content to answer questions and solve problems. In other words, it teaches them critical thinking skills that will equip them for a future of their choice in any discipline.