STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) has become a major focus for education in the United States, and with good cause, given the decline in America’s world rank in these subject areas. Teaching STEM subjects can seem daunting if you don’t have a degree or certificate in one of these areas, but you don’t have to be a science major to provide solid STEM curriculum to your students. Using open inquiry techniques, you can help your students develop the correct questions to lead their own investigations.
One of the main initiatives behind the STEM push is to have students practice science skills through hands-on activities that ideally address real-world problems. The question then becomes, how does a teacher give middle school students an opportunity to experience real science in action and explore questions in a safe manner in the school setting? The By Design Science program has these opportunities built into the curriculum, with guides for teachers to follow while allowing students to explore a wide range of topics.
The first opportunity for students to engage in STEM activities in the By Design Science program is the open inquiry included at the beginning of each unit. Students are allowed to explore any topic that relates to the unit they are studying. These types of activities allow students to pose questions related to real-world problems and research solutions on their own or with a team. To make sure students include mathematics in their research, teachers can require them to use data to show how effective their solution is or to include other related mathematical data in support of their reasoning.
The By Design Science program engages students in a multitude of STEM activities throughout each lesson with varying degrees of difficulty and with some opportunities to explore more open-ended questions. One of these opportunities is with the Engineering Practices found at the end of each unit’s Student Science Journal activities. Most of these activities are guided inquiries, which means that a question is posed for students and some guidance is given to get them started in the quest to find answers, but students are free to explore and to structure their own investigations, with few limitations. The limitations are usually a result of what materials are available.
Part of true STEM-based research is failure. Failures need to be treated as an opportunity to learn and continue searching for a better solution. Failure may discourage some students because they didn’t get their expected outcome, so it is important to frame a failure as data collection and to encourage students to continue looking for a better answer. Teachers can model this by giving a demonstration that doesn’t go as expected and talking through the analysis about what variables caused the unexpected results and how they could be corrected or improved.
Traditional curriculum would likely have students looking for a definitive correct answer to many of the lab activities. However, when teaching with STEM concepts in mind, the process students use to get to an answer is more important. Students may find a solution to their problem and present their findings, but there may be a better solution available. You may wish to challenge your students to conduct further research and additional trials to identify a better solution. Students should be asked to analyze their results and evaluate what they could have done differently or what additional questions they would like to study based on their results.
The idea behind incorporating STEM in the classroom is not to memorize or prove facts that other scientists have already discovered, but rather to encourage new and innovative thinking. Of course you will want your students to understand the concepts they are studying, but students need to know how to go about finding a solution to a problem. Knowing how other scientists came to a certain conclusion also helps students understand the concept better. The skills used to find a solution are skills future employers are going to be looking for when they hire someone to develop the latest groundbreaking technology or to find the cure for a disease.
Don’t be afraid to implement STEM concepts in your classroom. Embrace this as a challenge that can allow you to model for your students how you can research, experiment, and learn to improve your skills.