Our Troubled World Requires a Skilled STEM Workforce
Elements of STEM are integral to our nation’s economy – from health care to infrastructure needs, energy, and the environment. That’s why one of the most important tasks we have as educators is to encourage our students to consider careers in STEM. To get them to that point, they need to develop the ability to question and plan ways through experimentation to find viable solutions.
Do I Have a Dynamite Class Lesson?
Have you ever asked yourself, “Do I have a class lesson that I could sell tickets for?” In other words, a lesson that students will absorb and remember, and that will leave them excited to take the next step? A lesson that does that probably includes more than just abstract theory or memorization of concepts. It probably also challenges the students with “out-of-the-box” thinking (aka critical thinking) through self or team experimentation – which is a lot more interesting and engaging than listening to a teacher lecture or demonstrate a science concept.
As long as students are learning, you can use any means possible to turn on the “light bulb.” There is no more important gift than teaching students how science works through application and experimentation.
A Lesson About Food That Is Much More
Let me give you an example. Our high school is situated in a rural area surrounded by farmland, but most of my ecology and biology students are not from farming families. They also do not understand where their food comes from, but they do love to eat. So I use their favorite thing – food – and spice it up with questions about its true cost in dollars, health, and environmental impact. I created a curriculum called From Farm to the Plate, cross-cutting concept lessons to hook my students. We plant and harvest product, discuss the Green Revolution’s impact on Fair Trade and the world economy, and investigate heath impacts. I also challenge my students to think beyond the obvious – it’s just food, right? – because corn and other food items can be made into plastics, biomass fuels, and more. My students convert corn into ethanol during a hands-on distillation lab, to simulate what ethanol plant employees actually do.
Posing a phenomenon question such as, “What will growing more corn do for the ever-growing population on Earth?” can lead to a wide range of experiments:
- Genetically modified organisms (designed to resist drought and insects)
- Protein synthesis and the role of enzymes
- Habitat impacts (habitat loss; native grasses vs cultivated grasses)
- Water usage
- Biogeochemical cycles
- Watershed awareness, government food subsidies and their impact on obesity, and more.
Take Observations and Data Further
What students observe and the information they collect can be taken even further with such useful technology tools as a portable STEM lab, which can allow students to measure everything from temperature and light over 24 hours, to acid rain, turbidity, water quality, and more. By using “real-world” hooks in the classroom, students begin to see that what they learn, practice, and apply during classroom inquiry experiments can lead them to ways to harness technology for promoting sustainable life.
Speaking about technology, let’s talk about the newest phenomenon: Pokémon GO! It takes an activity that digital natives (aka students) do and interests them (social media). But the twist is that the participants must physically move around the world in order to capture Pokémon (learning by doing). In other words, the app gets the participants out of their seats and into the action.
When the Question Is More Important Than the Answer
In my classroom, learning is more about questioning than it is about discussing the answers. My classroom “PokéStops” involve hands-on experiments that build skills sets through self or team discovery rather than through a boring lecture. Yes, this technique takes a little more time, but the results in the long term are so much more worthwhile. If we can guide our students to acquire the skills they need to recognize viable information and understand how it can be applied to solve a problem, then we may help to produce a better future employee. I also design my lessons so the students collect “Poké Balls” (aka core concepts), which will ultimately be tested in a “real-world” application lab.
I Don't Like Math, but I Like This!
In my forensic crime science class, my students often say, “I’m not good at math.” However, in order to figure out bullet trajectory, they have to use evidence like puzzle pieces with advanced trigonometry (oh no, math!). I don’t tell my students we will be doing advanced math skills. I simply put them physically into the equation during a training lab. One student is the height, another student is the sight line, and another is the distance from the murder victim — just like the sides of a triangle. With these pieces of information and some collected evidence (like bullet casings found on various rooftops), the team must then determine where the shooter was located and who it might be. After they have used the string method to physically display the possibilities, they “become” the degree settings on the protractor, sighting and inferring what happened based on the evidence. When it is all done, their data is easily inserted into a generic mathematical formula, and EUREKA! They have pinpointed the shooter’s location. When I announce to the class, “You are so smart today, you’re freaking doing trigonometry!” everyone is amazed because, after all, they don’t do math. And their energy level and confidence go up several points.
Teamwork, Teamwork, Teamwork
Just like in Pokémon GO!, I put the students into working teams that build on one another’s skill set. The students see that they have to work in a team because one person cannot do it alone nor know everything that is needed to solve the challenge. Also, the Pokémon Eggs instill a desire to do more than just enough to complete the exercise. The longer the distance displayed in the egg (or the greater the student challenge) the bigger the awesomeness (or outcome) will be. This models what any corporation does when it asks an employee to solve a problem for a net profitable gain. Employees who can creatively solve problems while integrating the various skill sets of their fellow corporate teammates, and then effectively communicate the results of that work, will advance rapidly in any type of job. Advancing rapidly means more income for the company, the employee, and ultimately the U.S. economy — a win-win-win!
So when preparing for this coming fall semester, challenge yourself to experiment. Think like a Pokémon app, and design your PokéStops, Poké Balls, and Pokémon Eggs to help develop the most awesome STEM workforce for our future!
Want more information on the portable STEM lab? Check out this useful tool now.>>