Iterations

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Reaching the Whole Child with STEM Education

Posted by Dr. Ann P. McMahon on February 5, 2011

Remember the three core emotional needs we all have? Love, belonging, and a sense of power over circumstances. Research also says three factors motivate people to innovate more than anything else: autonomy, mastery and purpose. Can we use school science and engineering to foster all six of these? For complex tasks that involve conceptual, creative work, Dan Pink says the research is clear about those three motivating factors. For simple, rule-based tasks the carrot-and-stick approach works just fine: you do this and you get that. (Click to see Dan’s delightful RSA animated talk and other RSA animations). How can we use this knowledge to motivate students’ STEM learning and teachers’ STEM teaching as well as meet their emotional needs?

I mentioned here that the new draft of the National Science Education Standards places unprecedented emphasis on teaching K-12 students the engineering process. Some of my colleagues in K-12 science education don’t like that engineering has been added to an already full slate of science understandings that teachers must teach. Some say that students should learn engineering in the context of learning science. I say it makes more sense to teach students science in the context of engineering. I’m going to explain why through the lenses of what we know about people’s basic emotional needs and what motivates people. And I’ll show how an engineering context makes for good science teaching, too.

There’s a fundamental difference between science and engineering. School science and most professional science deal with objects and phenomena that exist. School engineering and professional engineering deal with objects, phenomena or processes that do not yet exist. This is an important distinction because it places school engineering in the realm of the complex, conceptual and creative learning tasks Dan Pink mentions. Engineering is a process that results in something new, even if the process begins with something that already exists. Scientists’ creation of new science knowledge is also a complex process that requires conceptualization and creativity. The motivators for these tasks are autonomy, mastery and purpose.

But school science packages existing science knowledge and the scientific method in a simpler, rule-based way: if you do X, you’ll observe Y and conclude Z. It’s the sense-making discussion after observations are made – the social learning – that leads to students’ grasp of the big ideas in science, and the big ideas are already established, too. And research shows that the sense-making discussions necessary to cement student learning don’t always happen. I think that all students need to have rich sensory experiences with natural and human-made objects and phenomena that lead to key understandings in science. All of us were taught the scientific method somewhere in our K-12 education. We learned science facts, too. We need to know these things to become scientifically literate citizens. But what’s the motivation to engage and learn when science is presented in such a simple context?

To explore the idea of embedding school science in an engineering context, let’s compare the scientific method with the engineering process.

Notice that the engineering process is need or problem driven and the scientific method is question driven. The scientific method fits naturally into several steps in the engineering process where questions drive one step into the next: research, selection, testing and evaluation, and redesign. For example, if my need or problem is to design a compact and attractive device for growing tomatoes all year long in a home, first I need to know how tomato plants grow. That leads to a need to know the life cycle of plants, a science unit that is taught in most elementary schools. For that same design, I’ll need to know the physical properties of the materials I want to use to help my tomato plants grow – soil, chemical nutrients (including water), containers, light sources, holding structure for plant containers. I’ll need to use my math skills to measure the growing plants, construct any containers or structure to hold containers, calculate the cost of my solution, measure light and water to the plants, and many other elements of my solution. I might use the scientific method to compare two or more preliminary solutions, growing plants each way to test their effectiveness and ease of use. I’ll have to test my final design to make sure it meets all the requirements of the problem or need. I must use my language arts skills to communicate my solution to others. I might write a report that describes my design and what it can do. I might also write marketing materials that would entice people to buy my device. The engineering context motivates a need to know many science, math social studies and language arts concepts and skills.

I’m not the first person to come up with the idea of embedding science, math, language arts and social studies into real world design challenges. Lots of research exists on problem-based learning. Many teachers use this approach to engage their students. It’s a demanding way to teach because there are no predetermined answers to complex design challenges; students and teachers must be creative, adaptive and innovative. Teachers must have enough science knowledge to guide students’ design and troubleshooting processes, which means that the teacher must be able to deal with complex problems creatively. Students’ and teachers’ thinking is raised to higher levels in the school engineering process than in the typical school science process. It doesn’t make sense to embed the school engineering process into the school scientific method because the school scientific method is a rule-based tool that serves the larger, more complex and adaptive engineering purpose. But the problem based approach doesn’t lend itself to the teach-to-the-schedule-and-test-based accountability system that has all students doing the same thing at the same time to prepare them to score well on a high stakes test. In order to make the problem-based approach work, the educational paradigm must shift.

The thinking-based reasons for embedding the school science process into a school engineering context are compelling. I think it’s even more compelling that the engineering context can contain all three core emotional needs and help students experience all three motivational factors, too. We’ve already shown how the problem based nature of the engineering challenge requires students to think more creatively than the typical, rule-based school scientific method. Now let’s add the social and emotional advantages to the cognitive ones. It’s possible to find meaningful engineering design challenges that give students a sense of purpose (a motivating factor) and a sense of belonging to a group (a core emotional need) that’s focused on meeting the challenge. If the group works well together and capitalizes on the talents of each member, each member can feel a sense of mastery and autonomy (motivating factors) as well as power over her contribution (a core emotional need) to the solution. The sense of being loved (a core emotional need) translates into feeling valued by peers for one’s unique talents and abilities. My elementary teacher friends might remind me that expecting such collaborative behaviors from children is asking a lot. It’s even asking a lot of many adults. That’s only because our existing school accountability culture values and tests cognitive learning as an individual activity and not a social one. Guidelines for social and emotional learning emphasize empathy and collaboration beginning in preschool, identifying more advanced empathic and collaborative behaviors as children grow.

I was introduced to collaborative learning and project work in engineering school. Until then, my success in school was measured by my ability to learn on my own and show that on the kinds of tests and measures that led to my admission to a highly competitive university. My experience in engineering school was a mixture of learning on my own, learning in social groups outside of class, and learning collaboratively in small groups within a course. I earned grades for my individual work in some courses and I earned shared grades with my partners for our group work in other courses. My social learning was the most fun, though. There were very few women in my engineering program, so we formed a study group soon after meeting. We supported each other, did well as a result, and many of us remain friends to this day. Back then, we created a shared sense of purpose around mastering engineering knowledge and skills well enough to succeed on our own in industry (notice the three motivating factors). In that process, we grew to value each other’s unique contributions to the success of our group as students and as friends (notice the three core emotional needs).

Professional engineers and scientists rarely work alone. I’ve written about this here. They must work with others near them in their physical workplace as well as in global, virtual workplaces created by technology. The ability to collaborate and solve problems with others is not only a core professional skill, but a core life skill as well. Each of us learns to collaborate and solve problems by engaging in relationships – through social and emotional learning. Our patterns for relating to others get established very early in life. Children need continuous practice relating to others to expand their repertoire of relationship skills. In the process, they can meet their three core emotional needs and feel motivated to win the future through STEM experiences that inspire them to innovate.

Let me know what you think. What collaborative experiences did you have in school? Were the three core emotional needs (love, belonging, and a sense of power over circumstances) and the three motivating factors (autonomy, mastery, and purpose) present in your experiences? Would your school STEM experiences have been more satisfying if they had been more collaborative? Do you think that learning science, math, language arts and social studies in an engineering context can prepare our children to be the innovators of tomorrow?

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