Hands-on learning starts to have a positive impact on the college transition when students are still in high school. By engaging students in STEM activities during this period, it can help shift their notions about what subjects they want to pursue in the future both in college and as a future job. One major way that many groups are seeking to influence this important decision is through making available many interesting and innovative hands-on experiences. Symantec recently gave a grant of $7,500 to the Boys and Girls Clubs of Venice that enabled them to put on projects that taught things such as cyber security, robotics, underwater robotics, engineering, and audio engineering to students in a hands-on way. This allowed students to not only learn at their own pace, it also allowed them to solve their own problems, to develop critical thinking skills, and to identify that STEM-based problems are something within their abilities to solve. By showing that the STEM fields are practical and doable, these hands-on experiences are more than just fun: they pave the way for future passion and learning in these subject areas.
In addition to pre-made projects that show students what's possible, some schools are helping students do research into their own areas of interest. Seton Hall University teamed up with North Star Academy in Newark, New Jersey to teach students how to conduct STEM research. Working in teams, students were mentored by a faculty member, conducted research in the University's lab, and presented the work at a special exposition. Activities such as this help bridge the high school to college gap by giving students in-roads into the world of academia that they will soon inhabit. It also allows them to view collegiate STEM work as an area that can provide opportunities for achievement due to their previous history of academic success in this environment.
However, the importance of hands-on education does not stop after high school graduation. It also needs to be expanded into community colleges and other undergraduate institutions where research and real world learning experiences are often not part of the typical learning experience. One example of a group that has sought to change this is the Lone Star College (LSC) System. LSC is the second-largest community college system in the state of Texas, and it recently pioneered a program at its Montgomery, Texas location that allows undergraduates to participate in biotechnology research that has applications in clean energy. Through a mixture of local partnerships, engaged faculty, and passionate students, the program has become a success that offers undergraduates the chance to participate in real research on a weekly basis.
Opportunities like this could re-energize students who feel like their STEM efforts are not going anywhere and may be thinking of switching majors (an incredibly common concern in the STEM subjects). Instead of programs that only focus on theory and "experiments" with pre-ordained outcomes, programs such as this are letting students get hands-on experience at the beginning of their higher STEM education careers that lets them know what the real research process looks like. By exposing students to this style of learning and collaboration earlier (rather than waiting until graduate school, as is usually the case), these educators and those doing similar things around the country hope to energize students to maintain their passion for science, math, and other STEM subjects through school and into the future workforce.
The demand for STEM proficient students is expanding all the time. Industry leaders are constantly talking about the need for more STEM graduates. Even traditionally non-education based groups like the United States Department of Defense are initiating programs to prepare elementary school students in poor areas to excel in the STEM world. A crucial part of making the dreams of all these institutions a reality is making sure that students can make the jump from the highly regimented world of high school to the much freer world of college with their love of STEM subjects intact. By instilling this drive through an increase in the amount of hands-on learning that takes place, educators believe that students will be more likely to stay on-track to gain STEM degrees than they would be if science and math were continuously taught by lecture and books.
Sometimes, a little excitement makes the medicine go down. These efforts to make STEM more engaging are not saying or implying that books, lectures, and traditional classrooms have no place in the STEM learning environment. Instead, these are extra tools that can be used to help spark interest and passion in students that traditionally get left behind. The future of the STEM workforce is going to take the full effort of every American student; hands-on learning is one way that today's schools can make sure tomorrow's workforce is ready.