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For STEM Learning, Real-World Application Matters

Help students connect what they learn in the classroom with the world around them.

Kelsey Herron | September 13, 2012

Getting students interested in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), is of national importance. Just three months ago, President Obama announced a new “teacher task force” to focus on STEM education in schools across the country. To be effective, says Harriet Sanford, president and CEO of the NEA Foundation, STEM education must start with real-world situations to spark students’ interests.

“Far too often, we simply don't capture students' imagination and help them connect what they do in the classroom with the world around them,” said Sanford writing at the Huffington Post. “To use a non-science metaphor, we give students nouns in the classroom when they're looking for verbs.”

According to Sanford, students must understand the practical application of what they are learning in the classroom in order to be competitive in college and in their careers. This point, in particular, struck a chord with me, as I remember constantly asking math teachers throughout high school, “When am I going to actually use this?” If today’s students are still asking this same question, it seems we are still not using the most effective methods to reach them.

Sanford pointed to a 2011 Harvard University study that found 45 percent of students surveyed said they are bored in high school. When I first read this, I will admit I smiled a bit, because my initial thought was, “Isn’t being bored part of the experience?” However, thinking more critically about what this statistic means, I realized how sad it is that we, as a country, are failing such a large portion of students.

“Many, including disproportionate numbers of minority and low-income students, will drop out or squeak by and then struggle in college -- if they make it there at all,” said Sanford, who suggests that this truth may be abetted by diversifying instruction methods.  “Far too often, students fail to see connections between what they are learning, their communities, and a future job that can sustain them. Even as we push for higher standards, we're pushing away large numbers of students who are capable of reaching them, just not in traditional classroom settings,” she said.

On a more positive thread, Sanford pointed to the exciting developments in STEM learning in rural, high-poverty regions in Ohio and in urban Milwaukee as examples of reaching students outside of the classroom. “To see a hopeful future for science education, look no further than the Raccoon Creek watershed in rural Ohio,” she said. “There, Vinton County High School students are literally getting their feet wet, testing water and examining fish to investigate the impact of acid drainage from more than a century's worth of coal mining in the Appalachians.”

Sanford said that experiences like these are what some high school students need to recognize that there are meaningful careers and opportunities available to them in their rural community. “For some, this realization could inspire them to make a difference in the lives of their families and friends through a career in the sciences,” she said.

Meanwhile, in Milwaukee, public school students are getting their hands dirty helping the up-and-coming urban farming movement. As Sanford noted, the new measure has been creating jobs while addressing food deserts in low-income urban areas. “At-risk students are volunteering to come in after school and on weekends to tend aquaponic projects, in which they use recycled materials like milk jugs and paper towel rolls to create sustainable systems to grow healthy food in an urban setting,” she said.

Not all projects are literally hands-on. Virtual tools allow kids to explore science with their peers across the world—in this case, the island of Fiji and Chicago. Through The Conservation Connection, an environmental collaboration based around two coral reefs, students from Marist High School in Suva, Fiji and VOISE Academy in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood were able to connect with one another while also learning about biodiversity and conservation.

One of the program’s reefs is located off the coast of Fiji, while the other has been digitally recreated in the virtual world of “Whyville.” The digital replica allows students to “dive” down and examine 50 different species, as well as play games that test knowledge about the reef’s ecology. While using the program, students keep a reef journal, and follow interactive guides available through the Field Museum’s databases to identify new species and test reef environments.

The program also allows each group of students to connect with a new culture through social media, while learning the science behind coral reefs. The two groups can then collaborate to create solutions for the real-world problems that plague their own environments.

“We had started looking into digital worlds as a way to work with youth and teens, to reach out to them and get them really participating in science,” Beth Sanzenbacher, a coral reef specialist at the Field Museum told Spotlight on Digital Media and Learning in an interview last year. “So we designed a program to get teens in Chicago and Fiji to interact and learn about biology, ecology and conservation, and to become stewards of their environment.”

Other examples of STEM learning with technology include robotic design, and innovative mobile apps like Project Noah that allow students to discover thousands of organisms from across the globe. The platform was created as an easy way for people to share their experiences with wildlife, and allow teachers to set up engaging “missions” that encourage students to reconnect with nature.

Regardless of the medium, the core of STEM education is about practical application, and real-world problem solving. According to Sanford, making direct connections between what’s taught inside the classroom and how to use that knowledge in potential everyday situations is crucial in gaining students’ interests in STEM courses.

“Teachers everywhere are facing larger class sizes and fewer resources,” she said. “But the reality is that making STEM education more effective doesn't require more money for schools. It requires real connections to the community around them that can capture students' hearts and minds.”