As an advocate for STEM education, Phillips Charitable Organizations provides scholarships to help aspiring engineering professionals realize their dreams. The nonprofit is one of many organizations focused on the important goal of creating a thriving, diverse STEM pipeline in the United States. In doing so, philanthropists, educators, and STEM professionals are striving to not only strengthen the nation’s STEM workforce, but also to ensure that students have the knowledge, skills, and confidence to reach their full potential.
One of the best ways to reduce gaps in the STEM pipeline is to encourage students to begin exploring STEM at an early age. A key element of this task involves helping students see beyond textbooks and tests to understand the real-world relevance of STEM. While it’s important for STEM lessons to impart the knowledge necessary for a full understanding of science, math, technology, and engineering topics, they should also be fun, engaging, and illuminating.
The following are a few of the most important elements of an effective STEM lesson:
The ever-increasing importance of science, math, technology, and engineering lies in the ability of these topics to be used to solve problems and improve the quality of life for mankind. Thus, STEM lessons should revolve around real-world questions that prompt students to solve relevant challenges facing our society. These problems may be localized to the student’s own community, or they may be broader issues facing humanity.
For example, a teacher may challenge his or her students to assess the water quality in a nearby pond, or he or she might ask them to explore potential designs for more water-conscious home appliances. Regardless of the scope of the questions posed, STEM lessons should help students link topics to the wider world and to their daily lives.
By shaping STEM lessons around real-world problems, educators give students the opportunity to apply what they’ve learned in a meaningful way. Students gain experience researching and analyzing data for a specific objective, leveraging the information they gather to better explain scientific phenomena and develop authentic solutions to real challenges. This method of learning can also prompt students to explore the vast array of STEM careers available to them. By exploring the real-world applications of STEM topics, students can gain a better understanding of the work done each day by individuals in these fields.
The major benefit of problem-based STEM lessons is their interactivity. They allow students to work toward clear objectives and play an active role in their educations, utilizing frameworks such as the scientific method and engineering design process to take charge of their own learning.
In most cases, STEM lessons with an interactive element utilize the engineering design process. This step-by-step framework guides students in identifying and assessing a problem, conducting research, developing potential solutions, testing them, and conducting redesigns as needed. While the framework has some similarities to the scientific method, it differs in its emphasis on trial and error. Evaluating and redesigning prototypes is a key stage of the engineering design process, and it drives home the value of trial and error in STEM endeavors.
While teachers play the important role of planning and facilitating STEM lessons, the most engaging classroom experiences place students at the helm. Great STEM lessons do not simply impart information – rather, they allow students to explore topics for themselves in a hands-on, open-ended environment.
Presented with a challenge, students brainstorm their own solutions and have the freedom to test, evaluate, and redesign their ideas as they work toward a fuller understanding. This experience can be incredibly empowering for students who are used to simply absorbing information from a textbook or classroom lecture.
Knowledge gained through advanced STEM courses is often applicable to highly-specialized fields like sustainability or computer coding. However, effective STEM lessons can also aid the development of more broadly applicable skills.
STEM projects provide an opportunity for students to improve their teamwork and communication skills as they work together to solve problems. Hands-on activities can help students become better at communicating their own ideas, while at the same time allowing them to practice researching, brainstorming, and building solutions with a larger group.
In order to drive home the global relevance of STEM topics, STEM lessons should combine topics from varying subject areas whenever possible. By sharing and collaborating on their curricula, math, science, and technology teachers can better develop hands-on STEM activities that integrate what students are learning in multiple classes, thus illustrating the interwoven nature of many STEM fields.
While STEM lessons should be challenging, they should also allow students to use different strategies to come up with the “right” answer. An engaging STEM activity emphasizes creativity and trial and error, placing value in the process itself rather than the final result. Through lessons such as these, students can come to understand that failure is a necessary part of learning and is in fact an opportunity to illuminate gaps in one’s understanding.