In the last two decades, educational leaders have spent considerable effort to increase the use of innovative practices in the classroom. These practices, including project-based learning, problem-based learning, and inquiry-based learning, have been designated as most promising practices for improvement of educational outcomes in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. Project-based learning has as its goal the actualization of learning around a project that includes describing ill-defined tasks, hypothesizing, modeling, testing, and refining.
Although STEM has been defined by various researchers the last decade, STEM education has gained an increasing presence on the national agenda through initiatives from the National Science Foundation and the Institute for Educational Sciences. Several states, such as Texas and Ohio, have also initiated statewide STEM efforts focused on PreK-12 schools. Additionally, STEM education has attracted private sector interest from diverse groups such as: The Houston Endowment, the Society of Manufacturing Engineers, the American Association of University Women and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Furthermore, a major national report from the National Academies, Rising Above the Gathering Storm, prepared by leading participants from academia, corporations, and government, has garnered considerable attention.
The National Academies report was released at a time of growing concern over the future of the U.S. in an increasingly globalized and competitive world, particularly in relation to the demand for workers proficient in science and technology. The summary painted a solemn picture, expressing its concern that “the scientific and technological building blocks critical to our economic leadership are eroding at a time when many other nations are garnering strength.”
The Call to Action
In order to remain competitive, the Committee recommended that the U.S. optimize its knowledge-based resources, particularly in science and technology. Recommendations included calls for increased recruitment of science and mathematics teachers, expanded teacher education, promotion of the STEM pipeline through K-12 education, greater research funding, and adoption of economic policies that would foster innovation in mathematics and science. While the report attracted widespread attention, it also has received some criticism from individuals who said it portrayed a more severe situation than the data warranted. For example, Lowell and Salzman (2007) argued that existing data indicated that the performance of U.S. students in mathematics and science is actually improving or has remained stable and that the current system is producing more qualified graduates in science and engineering than there are open positions for these graduates to fill.
STEM Project-Based Learning (PBL) has been defined as a “well-defined outcome with an ill-defined task” within an interdisciplinary framework. These ill-defined tasks can be complex and messy by nature, just like real-world problems. With ill-defined tasks, students investigate interdisciplinary, rigorous real-world topics usually originating from a driving question. STEM PBL integrates engineering design principles within the K-12 curriculum. STEM PBLs can be a model for classroom activity that shifts away from classroom practices comprised of short, discontinuous, teacher-centric lessons but instead fosters learning activities that are long-term, inter-related, interdisciplinary, student-centered, and integrated with real-world issues and practices. A STEM PBL could be a single lesson divided across two or three weeks. The instruction alternates between instruction that supports the PBL with necessary skills and concepts and the actual PBL instruction during which the teacher facilitates learning while students take the initiative to research and develop a product. This creates an authentic setting where students learn their subjects and then apply them in a real life setting. Students (regardless of age) learn better when they are authentically engaged in meaningful activities that produce authentic and tangible products. Dealing with real-world problems makes the knowledge gained relevant and increases the transfer of skills and information from the school setting to the working world around them, thus promoting life-long learning.
The Teaching Role
Teachers may be very well prepared to teach their subjects – especially in high school. However, they are products of an educational system that envisioned instruction in each subject separately. When teachers face teaching in a way they did not learn, they confront a set of challenges never before encountered. Remember, high school teachers excelled in a subject, majored in that subject, and became very successful at it. They did not learn when and how that content is used in working situations. Teachers need to learn to:
Business and STEM Education Reform
In no other time in the American educational landscape has it been more important for businesses to be engaged with schools. American school doors are open and teachers and administrators are welcoming the opportunity. Through engagement in STEM education, you can make an indelible mark on developing the workforce you want to hire and not the one you are stuck with retraining.
Robert M. Capraro, Mary Margaret Capraro, Sandra Nite, and James Morgan are Aggie STEM @ Texas A&M University. For more information on their findings and research please refer to: