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Non-Traditional Approaches to STEM Education
By Hemingway Posted:October 11, 2013 0 Comments
Quick: what do you think of when you hear the words "science class"? Is it a room filled with desks with a teacher explaining a diagram on the board? Textbooks filled with definitions and theoretical examples? Carefully monitored experiments that have a "right" outcome? The one-size-fits-all approach to STEM education may have something to do with the fact that many students are not pursuing STEM education in high school, college, and beyond. By embracing new efforts to put STEM education into students' lives from different angles, educators may have discovered a way to sneak interest in through the back door.

Some educators are reaching out to students through entertainment that they already enjoy. Honeywell and NASA recently launched FMA Live, a hip-hop based physics education program targeted toward middle school students. The presentation mixes songs, dances, videos, science demonstrations, and live actors to present the three laws of motion and the universal law of gravity. Over 980 schools have participated in the program so far, and the wildly popular program has reached over 320,000 students. The program comes with a companion website that offers additional resources that teachers can use to bring the curriculum from the show into the classroom for deeper exploration. Although traditional educators may think that this sort of program is all flash and no substance, showing students that STEM education can be interesting and (possibly) cool can engender a love of the subjects that can transfer into a shrinking STEM gap in the future. While no single day program will ever be more effective than positive at-school learning efforts, these sorts of programs can show that the STEM subjects can be exciting and relevant, something that is often woefully lacking in the classroom.

Sometimes, the only thing standing between a student and excellence is the right outfit. That's part of the reason that students at Glenallen Elementary School in Silver Spring, Maryland are given lab coats to wear as part of their science curriculum when they are engaging directly with hands-on learning. In addition to being a common safety practice to avoid spills and messes, this helps students feel like they are embodying the role of a scientist from a young age. As Principal Peter Moran stated "A lot of times when you dress the part, you feel it." And the recently revamped Glenallen is counting on all of its students to feel that STEM education is an important part of their education. These visible efforts have extended into extracurricular activities, science fairs, and field trips with a hands-on STEM approach. Educators have long believed that students who gain interest in the STEM subjects earlier are more likely to maintain that interest over time. By embracing these efforts in ways beyond typical classroom learning, this style of education marks the STEM fields as something special that students may want to continue to pursue.

Students are not the only ones who can benefit from approaching STEM education from a different angle. At the Dover International Speedway, educators are learning about how the math and engineering that goes into perfecting today's stock cars can be translated into learning opportunities inside the classroom. The program has already reached 170 teachers, impacting over 25,000 students. This DrivingSCIENCE program hopes to expand teachers' horizons and, through them, their students. And this is a point that does not get much attention, but it bears keeping in mind: if teachers are not interested or not adequately prepared to teach STEM subject matter, then these lessons will not be as effective as they could be otherwise.

STEM education is of vital importance to today's students. Only by being adequately prepared with critical thinking skills and problem solving abilities will they be up to the demands of tomorrow's job markets. However, that does not mean that all learning has to be done inside of a classroom. Instead, educators should expand current efforts to reach students where they are and show them that STEM education can be relevant, interesting, and fun. Only then will students begin to consider the STEM fields on par with other eye-catching subjects like the arts and sports. STEM education has flash and interest, and it is up to everyone with an interest in the future of the STEM world to show today's students just how interesting it can be.