An Integrated Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Approach
James Joseph Scheurich and Kristin Huggins
The actual doing of Project-Based Learning (PBL) within STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) classrooms at the secondary level is the primary focus of this book. However, that does not explain why a group of faculty and graduate students here at Texas A&M University have gotten involved in PBL. We deeply and strongly believe that it is possible to have both equity and excellence in all of our K-12 schools, regardless of who the students are who attend these schools. By equity, we mean schools that do not have achievement gaps based on race, ethnicity, language or culture, ability, income level, or gender, and by excellence; we mean that virtually all children can reach high standards. While this is not true for the majority of schools nationwide or statewide in Texas, we know from widespread research (Elmore & Burney, 1997; Scheurich & Skrla, 2001; Scheurich & Skrla, 2003) that it is possible to create high performing schools for any group of children.
Furthermore, we also deeply and strongly believe that the quality of our schools, i.e., the equity and the excellence that exists in our schools, is the work and responsibility of the adults who run the schools (teachers, school leaders, etc.) and the adults in the communities served by the schools (parents, grandparents, business people, other community members, etc.). In contrast, we do not believe in blaming students, though they certainly must be skillfully taught by us adults to take personal responsibility for their learning and school behavior. Nonetheless, it is the adults who plan, organize, teach, and lead the schools, and thus it is the responsibility of adults to create schools that are successful with ALL children.
Developing practical, workable, applicable, powerful classroom tools to accomplish equity and excellence in all of our schools is what got us into PBL. Accordingly, we are particularly interested in those tools that can reduce the achievement gaps for those student groups on the bottom side of that gap by driving up achievement for those student groups. In other words, we are interested in developing and implementing classroom tools that significantly improve learning for the lower scoring student groups, while also being of positive benefit to higher scoring students. In our view, the research clearly supports PBL as such a tool (Barron, Schwartz, Vye, Moore, Petrosino, Zech, Bransford and The Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt, 1998; Blumfeld, Soloway, Marx, Krajcik, Guzdial, & Palincsar, 1991; Schneider, Krajcik, Marx, & Soloway, 2002).
Traditionally, when mathematics or science courses are taught in secondary schools, they are taught almost exclusively through abstract thought. That is, students are taught formulas or laws, and then the students are tested on those formulas or laws. The real world connections or importance of those formulas or laws are rarely taught, and even when they are included, they are generally just mentioned in the textbook or by the teacher. These real world connections are rarely at the center of teaching and learning.
The result of an abstract textbook approach is that students must memorize formulas or laws without ever understanding their connection to the real world or their application to the "engineered" world in which we live. In fact, they have no idea that those formulas and laws are a basis for all of the many technologies students like so much, such as cell phones, ipods, computers, automobiles, television, cable services, wireless computer networking, etc. Indeed, students appear to love the array of technology that science, mathematics, and their integration through engineering has created without having any clear sense that it was those abstract formulas and laws that made these technologies possible.
The point, then, of PBL is to reverse this relationship: engage students in real world projects through which they learn those mathematics and science formulas and laws upon which our world is now increasingly built. No matter whether schools have low achieving students or high achieving students, a high percentage of students find working with real world projects to be exciting, engaging, fun, satisfying, and meaningful. And, the research indicates (Schneider, Krajcik, Marx, & Soloway, 2002) that through this method, they learn at a deeper level (failing to learn at a deeper level is one of the weaknesses of our educational system nationally [Dart, Burnett, Boulton-Lewis, Campbell, Smith, & McCrindle, 1999; Tobin & Gallagher, 1987]) than they learn with our traditional teaching methods. Thus, we see PBL as one of those powerful tools that we educators can use in our classrooms to increase both equity and excellence throughout U.S. education.
Another reason we are engaged in this work is STEM. We believe that a curriculum revolution is just beginning in our educational system. When one of us (Scheurich) went to high school, the primary second language to learn was Latin so Scheurich had four years of Latin. Decades ago, Latin mostly disappeared from the U.S. curriculum. Even earlier, high school diplomas were not common, but now of course, they are required, and some postsecondary education is increasingly being seen as necessary for everyone. Consequently, our educational system is always evolving, and now we are starting another such evolution-the necessity to be STEM educated.
The curriculum revolution we see is that science and math will increasingly be taught in an integrated fashion along with technology, just as it is used in the real world, and that engineering will become a common course of study at the high school and maybe even the middle school levels. In other words, just like Latin left the standard curriculum offerings, engineering is entering the curriculum. This will happen here, there, and yonder over the next decade or so until it has become standard for secondary education.
Certainly, one reason this is happening is the national paranoia about our economy, which is deeply dependent on engineering, being superseded by other national economies, like those of China and India. Currently, very few high school students graduate with the idea of becoming an engineer on their minds, even though the field of engineering is where many of the best paying and most satisfying jobs exist. We simply do not currently have an educational system that poses engineering as a paramount choice for college or university study, though we certainly ought to be communicating this to our secondary students.
A larger and more important reason this curriculum revolution will happen is the role of STEM-science, technology, engineering, mathematics-in our world. The rate of technological innovation and change has been tremendous over the past ten years, but this rapid increase will only continue. Ten years ago, cell phones and the internet were not large; now they are world altering. The next ten will only bring much more. In other words, the way we live our daily lives will be more and more deeply inside of - - or interactive with, technology. Some philosophers are even now discussing that what a human being is will become some sort of dynamic integration of ourselves with technology or, more accurately, with STEM. That is, our being as humans will include our integration with technology. This may seem farfetched to some, but how does your world operate differently with ipods, cell phones, and the internet. These have certainly changed how and how much we communicate with others, and the way we communicate with others is certainly central to our being as humans. This may sound like star wars, but we would simply say it is tomorrow, or, if we look from the viewpoint of 50 years ago, it is today. Thus, the STEM curriculum revolution is but one part of the larger, worldwide momentum of technological change or the human built world.
As a final note, we want to point out that Texas is seemingly at the forefront of this revolution in many different ways, including ongoing work on creating engineering as a high school subject. Our part of this effort is what is called Texas STEM Centers. Two years ago, some creative, visionary people at the Texas Education Agency (TEA) and others at the Texas High School Project (THSP, one of many projects of the Communities Foundation of Texas, a private non-profit started largely on Gates money) to create several STEM Centers across Texas. Each of these had to be partnerships among universities, school districts, private business, workforce organizations, and public institutions, like science museums, and several of these Centers are located primarily in universities.
The goal of this effort was to bring together key players to promote STEM education. In addition, these Centers are obligated to develop as self-sustaining after the state funding is gone. While starting one of these Centers from the bare ground and while building these complex partnerships with this array of organizations, all of whom have different discourses and different discourse methods, has sometimes been a difficult struggle, we at our Texas A&M University-based STEM Center are strongly committed to the original TEA-THSP vision for building STEM education, and this book is an important element of our effort to build this future.
Finally, we return to our beginning. Equity and excellence in ALL of our schools with ALL of our children is our vision, our goal, and our challenge. We strongly believe this is possible. We strongly believe that an equitable democracy requires it. We strongly believe that we, as educators, have the responsibility to make this happen. We are working on the dream, and we hope you are, too. And, it is our belief that this book will provide you with some key tools for working on the dream with us.
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Blumenfeld, P. C., Soloway, E., Marx, R. W., Krajcik, J. S., Guzdial, M., & Palincsar, A. (1991). Motivating project-based learning: Sustaining the doing, supporting the learning. Educational Psychologist, 26(3&4), 369-398.
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