Surprisingly, how to integrate STEM integration is a topic as controversial as Lady Gaga! Some people adore her as new queen of pop music, but some people think that she belittles the value of music and has a bad influence on people who listen to it.
Likewise, some people think that integrating STEM can provide a real-world, hands-on learning experience for youth. On the other hand, some educators and researchers believe that integrated STEM programs cannot comprehensively include the essential knowledge and skills from each STEM subject that youth should learn.
For example, robotics projects integrate science and engineering learning. But what exactly should the youth be learning when they do robotics? A good robotics program should involve such science concepts as force and torque, some engineering design, and some programming (mathematics). But the youth leader must have a clear learning outcome in mind. For the learner, without knowing all the content behind why and how a robot works, assembling a robot and making it to work is just a series of trials and errors. This is like a gambler throwing dice -- after enough throws, the gambler will eventually get lucky and hit the jackpot, without learning anything about math.
What is learned by this trial and error if learners have no idea why and how the robot works? We need to take a minute to think about the meaning of our STEM programs. What do we really want our STEM programs to achieve?
In my opinion, program designers and educators need to know what STEM knowledge and/or skills that they want to integrate in STEM programs before designing an activity. Otherwise, learners may seem to have learned something but actually learn nothing. If we don't carefully design and identify the integrated STEM knowledge and/or skills for a specific learning outcome, we could have a program that addresses only one of the STEM areas, or none of them.
Much of my research focuses on how to integrate STEM learning. So I am very interested in your opinion on this evolving question. I am also interested in how nonformal learning should complement the formal learning environment, which departments of education in many states have mandated be integrated.
What do you think? Should nonformal learning programs be integrated or focus on one of the STEM areas? Does experiential learning necessitate an integrated approach? How are we preparing ourselves to do this?
-- Hui-Hui Wang, assistant professor and Extension educator, STEM education
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