Life’s a project. We do other projects within it. Along the way we learn what we need to learn in order to complete the project goals. What would a classroom look like if it followed this authentic model of how we live and learn? How would we assess students? How would classroom and school culture be affected, if we made efforts to incorporate project-based learning and design thinking, keeping in mind that the ways in which they are incorporated will vary? What kinds of PBL and design experiences lend themselves most to building and practicing 21st century skills? This is the first in a series of posts about PBL and Design Thinking, written by an expert in the area. Over the next few weeks, we will hear from other perspectives on the topic as well so stay tuned.
Several years ago, just as STEM education was on the verge of becoming a national priority, I worked with a well-known, middle size school district on the Atlantic seaboard. The district advertised itself as a ‘STEM’ district and I wondered aloud to a small group of science teachers about the meaning of this designation. What made this a STEM district?
The answer startled me: The three high schools in the district had begun to offer all freshmen an extra math class.
And that was it. One extra math class.
Things have gotten better. A lot better. But as I read the national conversation about STEM, I see educators falling into the same traps that keep STEM—and education in general—from truly becoming a 21st century enterprise.
First, too often STEM is regarded as a collection of math, engineering, and science classes that students ‘take.’ Line up the required classes in the proper sequence, graduate more students with additional math and science seat time, revive the science fair, schedule in an honors class in molecular genetics, and from that emerges a STEM program. Add an Art class down the hall in 5th period—and call it a STEAM program.
This is the same conversation held in the 1890’s by the Committee of Ten at Harvard, charged with the task of reforming an agrarian school system. In their view, STEM described the attributes of a good industrial school system that would raise the standards of excellence for modern students. The Committee then recommended that Biology, Chemistry, and Physics be taught in sequence during the last three years of high school. Whether the decision was based on the alphabet (B before C and so forth), as I once heard, can’t be verified. In any case, the decision stuck. Virtually every high school follows the same regime a mere 125 years later.
Whether we choose STEM or STEAM (Science Technology Engineering Arts and Math), if we remain wedded to the view that school is simply a collection of classes and activities, I believe we’ll get the same result envisioned in 1890: Better education for an industrial world. STEM will take its place as a place marker for more math and engineering classes.
But if we want to turn STEM into a transformative idea that will fuel fundamental change in schools and, more important, engage 21st century youth in design thinking, problem solving, and innovation, I think the following ideas are important:
Use Project Based Learning as the primary teaching method. The most powerful STEM programs adopt an inquiry-based, student-centered, skill-driven approach to teaching and learning. A spirit of inquiry and personalization drives the program, even when teachers are doing something quite necessary in STEM: Delivering deep content. The best programs then know how to switch gears by designing engaging, extended, real world authentic problems that’s students solve. The best method for that is high quality PBL, using a deep structure of inquiry, questioning, prototyping, and product design that mirrors the tasks and methods in the work world. What does this look like in action? Watch how a STEM Academy in north Texas engages students in creative engineering work through PBL.
Make STEM synonymous with design thinking. STEAM versus STEM is a false dichotomy because STEM education is inherently driven by artistic considerations. Technology is a tool for good education, but not a substitute for the personal skills necessary to be a good investigator or competent engineer, such as attention to detail, willingness to redraft, and perseverance in pursuit of perfection. At its heart, STEM is a way of systematically examining the world and identifying critical elements that lead to great change or improvement. This is a human factors subject, and good STEM programs often start with the environment itself by building spaces that support a culture of engagement, excellence, mastery, and effective collaboration prior to turning students loose on their iPads. Good programs then build on this culture by using creativity rubrics with breakthrough categories, teaching students to follow a design rubric, turning student teams into peer evaluators, and allowing time for prototyping, failure, reflection, and redesign.
Trade in groups for teams and cohorts. Helping students work as effective collaborators is central to STEM. We can start by letting go of outdated concepts of group work and cooperative learning, and teaching the values and language of teams. Use contracts, peer collaboration rubrics, individual work ethic rubrics, and protocols to train and assess students on their ability to create a quality product through teamwork, as well as teach them about the accountability and commitment required for teams to operate at a high level. For STEM students, who may end up working in medical and engineering design teams, this training is vital. To give students practice in collaborative communication, as well as promote individual achievement within a team environment, have students form cohorts that help them track and refine their individual products during a project. Cohorts rely on careful analysis, precise feedback, and shared observation. This will make for better learners and products—and better scientists.
Support STEM with a better system. I have yet to see a good STEM program compatible with the existing rules and structures of traditional schooling. STEM teachers, if they’re doing their job, should bump up against grading systems, scheduling issues, teacher evaluations, curriculum requirements, collaboration time, graduation requirements, course sequencing mandates, pacing guides, and just about everything else associated with industrial methods. A good STEM system reflects the operating values of a tech-driven, design-oriented, can-do, entrepreneurial society. Schools can get there, and STEM can help.
Thom Markham, founder and CEO of PBL Global, is a speaker, writer, psychologist, and internationally respected consultant in the critical areas of inquiry based education, 21st century skills, project based learning, and innovation. Thom is the author of the best-selling Project Based Learning Design and Coaching Guide: Expert tools for innovation and inquiry for K-12 educators, the co-author of the Project Based Learning Handbook, published by the Buck Institute for Education, and the author of Redefining Smart: Awakening Student’s Power to Reimagine Their World. He offers virtual coaching as well as onsite workshops and online PBL courses. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @thommarkham.