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STEM learning = inquiry + content

By Hui-Hui Wang

STEM education programs need both inquiry/process and content. Most programs that I am familiar with do inquiry well. They do content less well. In fact, some programs are all inquiry and no content. This is a critical flaw. However, it is relatively easy to fix, because even small elements of content can make a complete STEM learning experience.

Recently a colleague and I had an enlightening discussion with some nonformal STEM educators at the Colloquium on p-12 STEM Education Research. We asked them "What do you want youth to learn in your program?"

The key words for their answers were: inquiry-based learning, learner-directed learning, less content, fun, hands-on activities, lifelong learning, real-world context, collaborative, and technology literacy.

These are great responses and fit very well with two important framing documents for STEM learning today: Framework for K-12 Science Education (2011) and the soon-to-be-published Next Generation Science Standard (2013), both from the National Research Council of the National Academy of Science.

However, we need to make sure that skills and practices (the inquiry, or process) are balanced by content knowledge. Engaging in science requires both of these.

For example, a youth could succeed at building a robot by following instructions (thereby learning a skill). But without an understanding of how robots are used in the real world (content), she might never apply that skill, or know what it is for.

A science program needs to have a broad vision to help youth practice both skills and content knowledge to do empirical investigation and inquiry. In other words, focusing on inquiry only addresses one part of the national science education guideline. We need to add more content into non-formal STEM program design.

When designing a STEM program, you can start with a small content goal. For example, if you only have 45 minutes to deliver a robotics program, the content knowledge that we want youth to take home after the program can be as small as understanding what a robot is. The program can aim to help youth to see that real-world robots are not characters in science-fiction movies like R2D2, but in the automatic door at Walmart and in the thermostat in their house that senses temperature in the room to adjust heating and cooling automatically.

Don't be afraid to add content to program design. Only small steps are needed. Helping youth to practice their skills and content knowledge in a STEM program should be the new goal for us when we design non-formal STEM program.

Can you see the need for more content in STEM learning? Do you see obstacles to doing so? How have you incorporated content into science learning?

Hui-hui Wang, former assistant professor and Extension educator, STEM education

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  1. I was in this break-out session with Dr.Wang at the colloquium and I believe that this is a stupendous overview of our discussion there. As I reflect back I would also like to add that when we mean 'hands-on' it usually refers to an activity-based interaction but add that it coincides with 'minds-on' structuring of the activity via feedback loops/critical questioning strategies that embrace what Nagel defined as the four categories of science: deductive, probabilistic, functional, and genetic. When we think inquiry-based anything, the 'hands-on' portion of the activity is the first to come to mind as a reference but the 'minds-on' portion is often neglected or it is maneuvered in such a way so as to embrace a specific content specificity - this was eloquently stated in Dr.Wang's summary. Pushing the idea of 'minds-on' further, we as formal or non-formal STEM education instructors/aids/supervisors must begin the conversation about what it means to structure 'minds-on' inquiry within these settings and delineate the habits of mind that are embedded in STEM cognition. This is not to say that these ways of knowing and being are separate or beyond those from other disciplines - quite the contrary. Rather, the specific methodological approaches for STEM formal and non-formal education settings should embrace the paralleling and inter-connective nature between science-specific inquiry as pedagogical, curricular, and assessment choice with those inquiry practices 'specific' to other disciplines. Focus too long has paid only a glance at the inter-disciplinarity that could be embraced within both formal and non-formal STEM education settings. This is something to consider and reflect on when we as educators and education researchers wish to progress these spaces further to more critical AND intimate ways of approaching science, technology, engineering, and mathematics praxis.

  2. Well comment! Yes. We definitely need to take minds-on in to account. A good STEM program should help learners not only use their hands, but also their minds. :)

  3. Robby Callahan SchreiberJuly 21, 2012 at 7:00 AM

    My response comes from the stance of a youth worker & manager in a program that focuses more heavily on content than process. We work with young people who represent backgrounds that have been traditionally underrepresented in STEM careers - girls/young women, young people of color, and young people from low-income families. Over the years we have created a program model that is heavily focused on giving the young people opportunities to use STEM to contribute to their communities and learn from their communities. The participants increase their knowledge of STEM processes and skills, but not nearly as much as their knowledge of how STEM is relevant to their communities and their selves.
    For all those people pushing for a more and more diverse group of STEM learners at the college level, this poses a problem. Our young people get most engaged in STEM through the community focus but they don't build the skill foundation and strength that will be necessary to carry them through very process oriented STEM learning at the college level. The drive to create more and more creative, inquiry based STEM learning opportunities at the elementary and secondary levels is not being matched at the collegiate level. From my perspective this will only contribute to a lot of failed dreams and opportunities for young people to pursue STEM careers as they navigate from high school to college STEM learning environments.

  4. Hi Hui Hui –
    I appreciate your point regarding the error in focusing too much on inquiry and missing content educational program design. A balanced approach may have more impact on youth learning. Like you indicated, it is also likely to be more interesting for the learners. I am interested in learning more about your design approach for nonformal learning environments. Could you say more about it and the intended outcomes? Any examples. Thanks for your compelling blog.

  5. Hi Robby,
    I totally agree with what you said. Lately, I have an opportunity to involve with a group of girls whose age is between 10 to 12 years old and live in poverty. We want to help these girls to see that they can go to collage and pursue their dream. However, they are so disengage when I try to engage them to learn STEM content. I think when youth have to worry about where is their next meal and if they will get shot when they walk home, I really think that “learning “ is the last thing will come to their mind.
    I feel what we try to do here is at least we lead the houses to water and try to make plain water to look like Coca-Cola, so they will want to drink it. However, it is hard to balance fun and the non-fun (actual content learning) part. We have constantly battled with our ideas and reality.
    It is like you said, “the drive to create more and more creative, inquiry based STEM learning opportunities at the elementary and secondary levels is not being matched at the collegiate level.” However, I think to help youth learn involves not only one but multiple variables, such as family, school and community. To help youth who live in poverty learning STEM, I firmly believe we need a good plan to involve family, school, community, and non-formal educational organizations. The program design should not only focus on inquiry, but also build STEM content knowledge and also provide opportunities for youth to practice what they have learned. I think this is the next level for us, non-formal educators, to put into our minds.

  6. Hi Jennifer,
    I think focusing on inquiry is a great thing, but we should not ignore the content part. For example, if we want to design an engineering project that is meaningful to youth, we either have to design a program that can help youth to apply their knowledge, or to teach them some STEM knowledge. To be an engineer means that he/she need to have plenty training for professional knowledge in his/her field and also ability to design a project/research. In non-formal learning environments, we have focused on building their skills/ abilities, but rarely focus on content knowledge. This is like we help a person to know how to generate a lot of great ideas, but we do not give them tools to do anything about it.
    I understand that we have to consider reality when we design our programs. We have lot of challenges, such as limited time and limited resources that make us hesitate to incorporate content into programs. However, if we keep this small, I think we can at least put one or two goals into program design that relate to content, such as apply them or teaching them. I hope this answer your questions. :)