STEM: It’s not just about computers but holistic, engaged learning

For those in the technology and education fields (combined), STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) is an acronym you may be familiar with. For those of you who maybe be hit by a new TLA (three letter acronym), a good first step is to review what the U.S. Department of Education has to say about it. Now, allow me to go on the record to state that I am NOT a certified educator. My wife is certified as a classroom teacher and school counselor so you can only imagine the types of discussions we have at our dinner table! However, I believe being a technologist in the education field, as well as my background, has given me some insights which I wanted to articulate in this posting.

For those of you which trudged through my “A little about me” post, you know that for most of my lifetime have not been engaged in my own personal education. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve learned a LOT! However, I can still recall doing the ole “book report” about the galaxy back in elementary school. If you were to ask me what I retained from doing that, I would tell you that it was the scribble picture of Saturn. On the flip side, my son was given an assignment for science on reporting on a specific oil spill which had happened. Each student had a different one and they were to present back to the class the facts which were learned according to the rubric. (I don’t even remember having rubrics when I was a student!!) My son was SO engaged in learning, modeling, and cramming all the facts which he had found regarding his spill that I had to draw the line and say he’d done enough. He would have easily put in another 8 to 10 hours into it willingly!

Why is his learning so different? Well, it could have easily been a book report and probably would have been in his previous school had we not open enrolled him to another school in the area (all public schools). However, this educator gave them a topic, outcomes, and said to get it done. (I was looking for her rubric to use as an example however this was last year.) The students knew that they had to present the facts back to the class (with structure such as the how, where, and when sort of things) but they could use whatever mode they were comfortable with. Such that, they could elect to write a paper, do a PowerPoint, or in the case of my son; model it out in Minecraft.

So, how is this one isolated science project lead to holistic learning? For starters, it required the discipline that we all practiced of researching the topic, having proper citable sources, and the likes (a language arts skill typically). However, he then needed to map out where the spill took place (a social studies topic, if you will) so that he could map it. Upon his choice of Minecraft, the obvious computer skills to create the world. In addition, he had enough forethought to know he didn’t like presenting and speaking in front of a group. Thus, he created a narrated video which he could play for the class. I could keep pining and droning about his work; the different areas of the traditional studies which it drew from however I’m confident you understand my point. In the end, he made a quality project which he took ownership in that learning experience. (By the way, his video can be viewed here. Barge Cibro Savannah Oil Spill)

The difference in experience of when I went to school versus my son, is all about the approach to learning, in my opinion. In the 70’s and 80’s (1900’s, just for the record!) when I was in primary education, it was all about the vessel of knowledge (educator) and imparting that knowledge to the students. Most of the time is was dry. That’s probably why there’s the phrase, “…you need to have a THIRST for knowledge!” My son, on the other hand, has ubiquitous access to probably any topic he’d want in a few key strokes. Want to know how to program? Go to Want to learn a new language? Fire up Rosetta Stone! In my opinion, it’s now become a collection of knowledge which we need to guide our children through.

The next piece of the puzzle is how do we motivate and keep our children engaged? There’s a school of thought (no pun intended) called gamification. Taking a task (sometimes mundane) and turn it into a contest or game. Come on now, we’ve had spelling bees forever! This, if done correctly, personalizes the experience based off of the learner. I had the pleasure of hearing Jan McGonigal speak when Microsoft brought her in as a speaker for us. She did a WONDERFUL presentation which really got me thinking about this. In fact, she did a TedTalk titled, “Gaming can make a better world” which was fairly similar to the talk we heard.

In the end, powering learners with the current tools necessary to achieve the task at hand as well as making it relevant to connect with them at a personal level are key factors in engaged learning. In my personal opinion, teaching “subjects” (i.e. math, social studies, etc.) is or should be a thing of the past. Being able to grasp from different disciplines in order to accomplish a task in a holistic manner is far more effective than isolating out a singular concept. Thus, I believe the concept of STEM being able to bridge and pull different concepts together into an engaged learning model.