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Reevaluating the STEM Classroom
By Mike Osmon Posted:May 29, 2014 0 Comments
Most people in the United States received their introduction to the STEM fields in the same way: sitting behind a desk while a teacher teaches a lesson. While this tried-and-true method has the advantage of decades of practice, it may not be the best way to keep today's young people engaged with STEM education. Experts expect a major shortfall of workers with required STEM skills in the next decade. But taking immediate action to change the traditional approach to STEM education may keep more students on track to pursue a STEM career. Better teacher training and recruitment is certainly part of the equation; but the key to heading off the coming shortfall of STEM-qualified workers may well be in changing the approach to classroom learning.

Take for instance the iconic lecture. Students sit in desks facing forward while a teacher talks. Perhaps the teacher is parroting notes or worse yet, reading from a PowerPoint. Students are expected to take notes, and the only sound is the teacher speaking. The problem with this learning environment is that it turns students into passive receptacles for knowledge. If a student does not understand something, the onus is on him or her to raise a hand and ask a question. Many students are too shy to do this for fear of interrupting the flow of the class. Others may not realize that they missed a key point until much later, and they don't want to drag the rest of the class so far back by asking for clarification. Such an environment creates barriers to student/teacher interaction and disenfranchises students from their learning opportunities.

In the most effective classrooms, students are given a voice to engage directly with the subject matter at hand. This sometimes translates into hands-on learning and flashy demonstrations, but it need not be that large. An engaging discussion that involves multiple students can be an equally effective learning device.

Open discussions may prove pivotal to changing the way the STEM classroom functions. This method of teaching has been under-utilized in the past, because STEM has the reputation of offering only one right answer to any issue. While this is often true, students can voice their confusions, discoveries, and conclusions in an open forum where they are allowed to explore a problem as a group. This method of teaching allows them to connect new knowledge to things that are already grounded inside of them. It has the additional benefit of helping to meet each student's social needs. This does not necessarily mean that students are encouraged to talk about their weekend plans or friends. Instead, it recognizes that students (like people of all ages) are more likely to be engaged in learning when their other basic needs are met, such as the freedom to speak out, to be heard, and to have others respond in kind. Traditional classrooms fail to meet these ancillary but important needs that are critical to learning. In the stilted traditional classroom, the environment encourages students to pass notes, engage in non-class related conversations, and generally adopt a mindset that is not conducive to acquiring new knowledge.

This capacity for distraction can have a major impact on student learning. A University of East Anglia study published recently in the Review of Education studied what effect classroom disruptions had on student learning abilities. Teachers were asked to rate classrooms on a scale of disruption from one (almost impossible to learn) to ten (an ideal learning environment). When classrooms reached a score of eight, educators began to believe that learning was being positively impacted in a major way. These teachers also commented that classrooms at or below an eight were not an uncommon occurrence. While students act out for many reasons, one possible reason suggested by this study is that they are not fully engaged in the classroom activities. By creating a more active learning environment in which they participate, students are discouraged from creating distractions. Discussions and active learning techniques offer a better chance for educators to take control of classrooms while simultaneously empowering students to view themselves as equal partners in ensuring their educational successes.

STEM education is vitally important to the economy and the future of the American workforce. Students begin to form their earliest ideas about the value of STEM in the classroom. Will they view STEM as boring and something to simply be suffered through? Or will they fondly look back on their STEM education as an early exposure to engagement that not only taught them facts but also challenged their critical thinking and encouraged them to engage in dialogue to increase their capacity for knowledge? Educators and policymakers should pursue a more engaging course inside the STEM classroom, so that student engagement and active learning becomes an everyday part of class and not just a special event that happens from time to time.