How to get STEM students to ‘poke the universe’ again

By Jake New, Editor, @eCN_Jake
May 2nd, 2014

Schools, corporations attempt to spur interest in STEM through project-based learning

poke-STEMSteve Woodhead, manager of global social investment for Chevron, said the energy corporation is trying to address a big problem in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

“For 200 years people relied on farming, and so they knew how to farm,” Woodhead said to eSchool News during the U.S. News STEM Solutions conference last week.Now, people rely on technology, but so few seem to know anything about it.”

Chevron’s not the only major company attempting to address the so-called “STEM gap”–the idea that schools are not producing enough STEM-proficient students to fill the 2.1 million jobs that will exist in the sector by 2020. Also sponsoring the event were companies such as Shell, Boeing, and Chevy, which had parked two of its cars on either side of the main convention stage.

And a common plan among the sponsors, speakers, and panelists to close that gap is to toss out old-fashioned lectures, and replace them with project-based learning.

“You can’t just attract kids to STEM,” Woodhead said. “There has to be something for them when they get there. It’s not just about teachers emptying their brains into classrooms.”

(Next page: Why do students lose interest in STEM?)

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5 Responses to “How to get STEM students to ‘poke the universe’ again”

May 2, 2014

It is easy to criticize schools for not doing project based learning. But it is expensive to buy the materials to do some of the projects, and there is no money to purchase them. We have fundraisers, but parents get sick of them and the kids aren’t allowed to go door to door any more to sell things. It is not as easy as it sounds to do project based learning.

May 3, 2014

I agree with the comment by bethgallo and would like to add that the biggest expense is time. I love cooperative projects and have done many in my 40 year career. I would do more if we either had material/curricular bundles or were given the time to plan between lessons as happens in other developed countries.

May 3, 2014

“… a common plan… is to close that gap is to toss out old-fashioned lectures, and replace them with project-based learning.”

The “toss out” part is fine, but the replacements suggested run a wide gamut. Project-based learning is one of those suggested as a panacea. It’s not so easy to implement and has issues with time, cost, and space. There is no panacea, at least not yet.

I suggest that projects be one part of an overall strategy the uses a wide variety of learning tools. In science, you can use online technology to supplement other work. In particular, online hands-on science labs can really add to the learning experience because students take their own data and interpret it themselves. Simulations, which aren’t truly labs at all, can build mastery of subject matter where other means aren’t available. Videos from Discovery and National Geographic can transport students to places otherwise inaccessible. In every case, follow up with a discussion and some content-based writing is necessary to ensure that you achieve full value.

When you consider all of the possible lecture replacements, you will probably find that one or two projects per semester is plenty to fulfill learning goals. Ten online hands-on labs should be adequate. Once you’ve found some good ones, simulations can help students get past the more difficult topics. A good video once a month will add to the variety. And, let’s not forget those traditional labs. While many were just make-work sorts of activities, some are valuable to learning. They are sort of like a one-day project if done well.

May 5, 2014

I see “materials,” “material/curricular bundles,” and “panacea” in the responses to the suggestion of PBL as way to encourage STEM learning. Materials can be “junk” to some people; materials allow PROTOTYPES to be assembled to visually represent the ideas. Check the recycle bins … Curriculum is mostly associated with the CORE knowledge that’s so important; there are many routes to this learning – including the videos as one noted. While I and many others see PBL as a great route, it works when teachers, students, parents, administrators decide it’s the way to go and make the effort to get it right. It’s great for a whole lot of reasons. Anecdotally, from conversations with teachers, I believe one very common issue is keeping things student-centered; giving up a lot of control is tough for many teachers because the students might get into areas unfamiliar to the teacher. As long as the students keep things at a level they can understand and explain to you and others, teachers need to learn along with the students.

Bottom line for me: PBL has improved student motivation and engagement; the “fun level” has gone up as has the effective learning. The Buck Institute for Education ia great source for all facets of PBL.

May 16, 2014

Students dislike STEM courses because they are difficult, not because they are boring. STEM is not inherently dry, and exams are only off-putting when you fail them. What we need to do is find a way to increase frustration tolerance. Genuine research is exceedingly frustrating by its very nature. If we use PBL as a way to replace the rigor of an exam with something that is graded subjectively, we might sucker a few more kids into advanced STEM study, but at some point, they are going to face reality. We need people who can and will persist in the face of difficult concepts and repeated failure.
The problem with math, in many a kid’s mind, is that there IS a right answer. No well-argued alternative will suffice. Ultimately, we as a society NEED those right answers. Don’t let them get lost in the shuffle.