Education Trends

Strategies for Embedding Project-Based Learning into STEM Education

We must do more than add a few math and science classes.

March 7, 2011

Editor's note: Today's guest blogger is Thom Markham, a psychologist, educator, and president of Global Redesigns, an international consulting organization focused on project-based learning, social-emotional learning, youth development, and 21st-century school design. He formerly directed the Buck Institute for Education's national training program in PBL and is the primary author of BIE's Handbook on Project Based Learning.

STEM education -- the focus on science, technology, engineering, and math -- has become the choice du jour for educational reform and was prominently mentioned in President Obama's State of the Union address earlier this year. I've worked with several very successful STEM schools, so I like the trend. But I also see a tendency to regard STEM as 'just another thing we do,' instead of seizing the opportunity to further develop 21st century learning principles. Here are some of the pitfalls I've encountered...

Late last spring I was asked to conduct a PBL workshop for teachers in a district that trumpeted STEM principles. But their definition of STEM? Every high school in the District had adopted an extra math course.

In another case, I arrived at a newly minted STEM Academy three days before the academy opened. The teachers were meeting for the first time -- and had no idea of how to proceed, except they knew they would teach physics to 9th graders.

In a third instance, the school hadn't bothered to change the curriculum or teaching styles at all. But henceforth, they would call themselves a STEM school.

Most people don't know the history of STEM education. The term was first coined in the 1890's by the Committee of Ten at Harvard, as a response to the gaps in the agrarian school system of the 1800's. STEM described the attributes of a good industrial school system that would raise the standards of excellence for modern students.

To realize the potential of STEM education in the modern era, I think we'll need deeper thinking than has been evident so far. Here's the primary problem from my perspective: Succeeding with STEM education in the 21st century requires systemic change at a scale far larger than the Harvard professors had to envision 110 years ago. Without adopting inquiry-based, student-centered, skill-driven approaches to teaching and learning -- all nested in a system that values innovation -- STEM education will become just another term for additional math and engineering courses.

How to do this? I found the ideas below can work...

Teach knowing and doing. Simply adding Advanced Calculus or a Design Media course isn't enough. Engineers build and design things, using applied math. Scientists work through repeated failures in the process of successfully discovering a new drug. At the heart of any STEM program should be courses in which students create products, not just take tests. Those products should be exhibited to their peers, teachers, parents, and adult experts. This step requires smart scheduling, presentation space, invitations, practice time for public speaking, and -- more than anything -- attention to the design process. For example, every STEM program I've worked with gets better results by using the cycle of inquiry to stress continual reflection and refinement of the product. This requires an intentional assessment tool like a design rubric or reflection form that is graded.

Allow for creativity. STEM education is equated with innovation. But solid STEM education bumps up against other staples of the school system, such as AP requirements or pacing guides, that do not reward or support innovation. Success here might require rewriting the names of courses, working closely with curriculum coordinators to assure them that academic rigor is maintained, or adding courses to the STEM sequence that are not tied to end of course exams or standardized tests. But what really works? Think STEAM, not STEM. Incorporate a creativity rubric into your project. Use a rubric that has a 'breakthrough' category. This category is open-ended and encourages students to think outside the box.

Make teamwork central. Scientists and engineers work in teams, so emphasizing teams -- and training teachers and students in how to make teams successful in the classroom -- is essential to great STEM education. To move from old notions of group work or cooperative learning into real teams, use a team collaboration and work ethic to help students identify the exact tasks associated with 21st century teamwork.

Start with questions. Any important endeavor in science, engineering, or technology starts with a question. How do we create this product? What are the best design specs? What does the consumer want? An engaging, rigorous STEM curriculum emphasizes questions, not rote learning, lectures, or regurgitating known information. A STEM program can teach facts and information -- these are essential to young people. But make sure that students are constantly challenged by interesting, meaningful questions -- with potential answers that matter to the world.

Thom Markham, Ph.D., President of GlobalRedesigns, and Senior National Faculty member at the Buck Institute for Education, is a psychologist and educator who served as a Director with Active Learning, Inc., an innovative motivational and learning skills camp program for high school and college students, taught at an award-winning high school, where he led school reform efforts and developed a highly-acclaimed internship-based program, and co-founded the Marin School of Arts and Technology, an innovative charter high school in Novato, California.

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