What is STEM?
STEM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. STEM does not simply accentuate the basic importance of teaching science, technology, engineering, and mathematics across the entire precollege spectrum of grade levels, but inherent in the STEM concept is that these subjects be taught in an integrated, coordinated manner.
Thus, the teacher needs not only grade-level understanding of the concepts, skills, and methods of each of these areas, but must also be able to understand, see, and teach the interrelationships between these subjects, and the strong influence they have on each other.
This is not a simple task. But there is a logical, research-based way to move forward and be a successful STEM teacher. However, let’s first look at how the basic concept of STEM has been adapted in recent years to include other elements of the curriculum.
Cognitive Spiraling and Levels of Instruction
By “Cognitive Spiraling” we refer to the coordinated and purposeful introduction of science concepts over a planned period of time. Each topic or concept builds logically from previous knowledge as suggested in the Information Processing Model (review Neuropedagogy if required). Keep in mind that both scientific content AND laboratory skills can and should spiral.
Levels of Instruction
By “Levels of Instruction” we refer to the cognitive level at which content is presented. The level of technical detail may be quite basic when a concept is first introduced to young students with a plan to go into specific details later as students progress in their cognitive development. For example, we may introduce students to the concept of density in early primary grades by simply presenting mass and weight using a pan balance. An attempt to discuss density at this point using the formula D=m/v (density is equal to mass over volume) would be confusing as it requires considering more than one parameter in working memory as well as the ability to do basic algebra. In later primary grades, we might address the concept of sinking and floating but without introduction of the formula:
Fb = Pf ag Vs
where Fb is the buoyancy force, Pf is the density of the fluid, ag is the acceleration due to gravity and Vs is the volume of the object that is submerged. However, in later intermediate grades or middle school, the density and buoyancy formulas can be introduced as students become cognitively equipped to consider several variables at a time and are capable of algebraic manipulations. The point is this – when students encounter the mathematics of density and buoyancy, they will have already experienced the actual phenomena of density and floating/sinking so that their working memory can focus on the more quantitative aspects of the measurements and more abstract concepts.
It should be clear that cognitive spiraling and levels of instruction work together to develop a deep understanding over long periods of time, years in many cases. The concepts of cognitive spiraling and levels of instruction are logical neuropedagogical ramifications of the Information Processing Model of learning and memory.
Start with Science!
Starting with Science
There are a number of reasons that one should begin designing a comprehensive and hands-on STEM program by focusing first on the science curriculum.
Students love science! With little or no encouragement they will explore the world around them with all of their senses. From infancy, children touch and feel the world around them. They are attracted to lights and sounds. And what parent has not had to scramble to prevent their child from placing an inappropriate object in their mouth – children want to taste the world as well!
Concept Development Through the Science Curriculum
Science is like learning a language or learning math. It would make no sense whatsoever to begin math instruction by studying the quadratic equation or calculus and only later to learn basic operations like addition and division. Yet for many years, science education has suffered from a patchwork hodgepodge of seemingly unrelated topics. As a result, a deep understanding of science topics has been missed for the most part. In its place has been an intellectually painful and dull (for both students and teachers) accumulation of miscellaneous facts and figures. Perhaps at some point in the past it was necessary to memorize lists of animal and plant classifications or the Periodic Table of the Elements, but today such information is easily and immediately available on even the simplest of mobil devices.
The instant access to technical details online should be used to free teachers and students to concentrate their attention on understanding science concepts at a deeper level. This is particularly true when we wish to relate science concepts to math, engineering, and technology concepts in a STEM curriculum. Deeply understanding the importance of science concepts and their relationship to other areas of human technical activities (as in STEM education) is far superior to turning our science students into so many walking science dictionaries that can spit out details but explain very little.
Using the science curriculum as the starting point of a comprehensive STEM program has many advantages. For example, science generates data at every grade level that can be manipulated and analyzed at relevant points in the mathematics curriculum. And according to Scholastic Magazine, “Not only is vocabulary enriched, but research shows that children involved in hands-on science do better in measures of reading readiness, science processes, perception, logic, language development, science content learning, and mathematics.”
LabLearner Four-Year STEM System
Build Slowly and Methodically: Start with Science!
A successful STEM curriculum needs to be implemented over a period of time. Asking teachers and students to embrace a new hands-on science curriculum while simultaneously tying it into the math curriculum and introducing technology and engineering projects is a recipe for failure.
A planned, multiyear “phase-in” or “roll out” program is more appropriate. Based on much of the discussion and neurocognitive arguments addressed earlier, the implementation of a full-scale STEM curriculum must begin with science. In the graph below, we suggest a four-year approach to implement a comprehensive STEM curriculum. LabLearner offers consultation services and professional development programs to make this four-year STEM plan come to life.