It’s been a hectic week and I did not get to completing an original piece to share. Here’s something I wrote that was published a little while ago. I’ve inserted some new comments in bold italics. These did not appear in the original newspaper column.
Let Youths be Science Explorers
My career as a teacher began when I was 9 years old. I would teach my imaginary class using my small chalkboard at home.
Over 30 years later, I still teach, primarily science. I’ve taught middle and high school science and in science teacher education programs. I followed the path of science primarily because I liked the stories about the world around us that science tells. I like the fact that these stories often change, that they are told by diverse groups of people, that as humans we all tend to author our own versions of scientific fact based on both personal experience and what we are taught. To most of us, story is powerful and seeing science as a changing collection of stories about phenomena and processes makes these understandings a lot more human and interesting than seeing them as a collection of immutable facts that some very brilliant people magically discovered!
This is why we see our young children enthralled with exploring bugs, sand, water, and a wide variety of other natural phenomena. They are busy creating their own stories about the world by observing, testing, and retesting. The middle years tend to be the period when most children disengage from science areas, however.
This is when many young people stop seeing the relevance of what they do in their classrooms to their own lives, when they stop being excited about a trip to the science museum, and when they stop seeing the relevance of their science-related experiences. This is also when the culture of textbooks, testing, and so-called inquiry labs, that look suspiciously like cookbook recipes, emerge in most classrooms in both public and private schools. Do you remember any labs or activities you did when you were in middle school? Which stand out? Why?
Somewhere in the last couple of decades, the term STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) evolved to highlight the interconnectedness of these four fields. So, as an example of a middle school STEM project, we can use portable, inexpensive probes to easily measure temperature in a creek, in the shade under a nearby tree, and whichever local spots seem interesting. We can observe plant and animal growth and movements and analyze our observations in light of the various microclimates.
Unlike traditional cookie-cutter science labs, STEM classrooms can address relevant and meaningful questions or problems. Often there is a major mental shift that comes with small changes in defining the task at hand. For example: design a model of a house that would be best insulated in the summer and winter months. That’s more challenging than the traditional lab where you take the temperature of water in cups made from plastic, paper, Styrofoam, and aluminum foil every two minutes.
With the first project, the student has the more interesting job of designing as opposed to merely following the steps in a lab workbook. Will there be a single right design – the holy grail of the Right Answer? Clearly not. Will there be clear expectations from the teacher that provides students with a road map? Will thoughtful thinking be acceptable, even if the result was a dead-end or failure? Hopefully. Good teachers have been making sure students grapple with interesting solutions to real-world problems forever! Whether the course has a STEM label or if it’s a chemistry, biology, computer science, or other course, students need to engage with these types of opportunities often. There is no single definition of STEM but my personal one is that a STEM activity requires the involvement of at least three of the STEM fields in meaningful ways addressing authentic and relevant problems or questions. Let’s move away from the labels and focus on the spirit of STEM!
Research tells us that middle school-aged brains are being sculpted so that good brain connections are reinforced and excess brain connections dealing with experiences that are meaningless to the individual are removed. Given the insistent messages we receive about how important it is for our youth to be innovators and problem-solvers for the US to be globally competitive, we need to focus on what is happening in STEM classrooms in middle school.
We need to create a system in which good brain connections are made and reinforced in these classrooms or risk continuing to develop young people who do not see the relevance of STEM and its associated problem-solving skills in their lives.
Classrooms in which students need to design investigations to answer questions have a greater chance of building desirable brain connections that shape students and become a part of who they are. Habits of innovation and problem-solving need time and practice, and STEM classrooms are fantastic places to be practice sites. Home is another fantastic practice site. As parents, what are some ways that you have had your kids practice problem-solving and innovation habits of mind? Please do share your experiences below.
Click here to view original article in the Dallas Morning News