In the past when a student had a problem with his or her grade, it was not uncommon for them to come to me and address the issue. Today that is less likely to occur. Many times students do not know what to do when they encounter a problem. Whether this is due to an increase in helicopter parenting, more demanding educational standards, or some other factor is not the subject of this article…unfortunately. What I do know is that when my students encounter a problem and I ask, “What do you plan to do about that?” I often get blank stares.
However, when I teach a S.T.E.M. lesson, it’s different; they figure it out. I like to think of S.T.E.M. as a cyclical process rather than a one-way street. Students begin with research, then move on to the design stage, building, testing, evaluation, and improvement. Then they move through the cycle again until they reach a solution to their problem. Rarely do they achieve success on the first lap. It takes multiple iterations of the process to find a solution, and even then success is relative; students decide when they are satisfied with their results.
During a recent chemistry unit, I had my students design cars that ran on vinegar and baking soda. None of the cars worked on the first attempt. In typical instruction, this would be considered “failure” and the lesson would end. However, students saw the experience as part of the learning process and were eager to try again…and again, and again. Getting the chemical reaction to delay long enough to cap the bottle was a major problem. Extensive attempts and online research gave them some workable solutions to this issue.
After a few iterations of the S.T.E.M. loop, some cars moved a bit. However, since I had them on a budget, many teams were out of funds – a major problem. I allowed them to write grants for additional funding and they had conquered the obstacle.
Late in the activity, one student had gotten around the time-delay problem by putting the baking soda in test tubes that he floated inside the bottle of vinegar. Then he capped the wheeled bottle. When he tipped the bottle the chemicals would mix quickly. It worked too well; the plastic bottle exploded in his hands, broke the glass test tubes, and made a small cut on his hand. I was alarmed, but he quickly shouted, “I’m good. Let me try it again! I think I can get it to work with one more attempt.” He received a new “funding grant”, built a new car, loaded the fuel, and set the school record.
I believe that with enough of these types of experiences in solving problems in S.T.E.M. activities, students will eventually learn transferable skills that will help them in their future lives. In our upcoming blogs, we will explore the other reasons Wiggins gives for integrating a S.T.E.M. curriculum:
1. STEM has real world application
2. STEM fosters problem-solving skills
3. STEM is hands-on instruction
4. STEM is differentiated instruction
5. STEM promotes cooperative learning
6. STEM teaches creativity
7. STEM makes failure a learning opportunity
8. STEM involves high-level thinking
9. STEM requires students to be actively engaged
10. STEM is the future