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The role of coaches in facilitating learning through STEM

By Rebecca Meyer

STEM coach and youth at the 2023 Minnesota 4-H Engineering Design Challenge
The Minnesota 4-H STEM program recently wrapped up the 2023 Engineering Design Challenge with in-person and virtual showcases. The youth and coaches who engaged in this year’s challenge theme "Take Your Best Shot and Celebrate" in honor of the program’s tenth anniversary demonstrated immense creativity and innovation, along with learning related to their understanding and challenges of simple machines but also of one another.

One of my interesting observations among the various activities was some of the differences among the teams. For example, one team I was privileged to engage in deeper conversations with came together from multiple clubs in their county to form the team and had only been working together on the challenge (many for their first time) since May. This team not only had an exceptional machine that ran well when demonstrated, but they also seemed to work really well with each other. When asked what their favorite part of the machine was, one young person shared which component was their favorite and then added that it was a fellow team member who brought forward the idea and helped to incorporate it into the machine. I thought about the amazing qualities this team was exhibiting and it made me wonder about how much this is about the individual personalities that make up the team, but also how the team was supported by their coaches. As professionals, we know this is a blend of both, and includes other characteristics since humans are complex. 

While our evaluations from the youth and coaches are just beginning to be analyzed, I do have ideas that lend to ensuring youth have positive engagement and are encouraged in STEM learning. Much of this attention should be focused on how adults are engaging and supporting youth in their learning. However this is often an area that we professionals either hurry along or neglect, as we tend to focus on what youth are doing and how it unfolds. It is easy to get caught up in the curriculum and lose sight of the bigger picture that STEM learning unfolds in a learning environment, where teams come together to work with adult leaders to solve problems.

The reality is STEM work encompasses both knowledge building (science inquiry activities) and also social aspects (team collaborative activities). Through the Driven to Discover: Enabling authentic inquiry through citizen science project we identified the team context as one of the critical elements that contribute to successful problem-solving and inquiry learning. To be successful, adult leaders need both knowledge of the science they are helping to facilitate, but also knowledge of youth in team activities. We need to equip adult leaders with understanding skills and capabilities to create an effective team learning environment. Augmenting adult leader training around STEM content with complimentary awareness and skills with social emotional learning, like teamwork.

When we focus solely on the sequence of activities or curriculum without being attentive to develop skills to create an effective learning environment, the experiences may be less successful. In the context of STEM learning, it is important that we focus on multiple dimensions to not only foster the collaborative space for questioning and solving the world’s grand challenges, but also effectively creating an environment for young people to learn about one another. 

In your experience of facilitation, what have you found to be most important?

-- Rebecca Meyer, Extension educator

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