Welcome to the first in a series of posts that will lay out the strategies in our STEM teacher guidebook (available for download Mar. 2014). This guide was written by:
Dr. Candace Walkington, Asst Professor of Mathematics Education, Southern Methodist University and 
Dr. Margaret Lucero, Asst Professor of Science Education, Santa Clara University.

1)   Engage students in STEM learning that mirrors how STEM is pursued by professionals

In many STEM classes in schools today, the content is largely taught through a transmission model, where the teacher lectures and gives notes, and the students follow along, accepting and memorizing this information. However, decades of research (see Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000) now tells us that this approach to teaching is not effective. Students need to actively engage with STEM ideas, to discuss, discover, and grapple with concepts in their own ways. They need to collaboratively work with other students, a variety of informational resources, and experts and facilitators like teachers, to progressively build their understanding. Simply being told a fact or procedure does not allow students to own it, to apply it, or to integrate it with the knowledge they already have. There is certainly a “time for telling” (Schwartz & Bransford, 1998) in classrooms, when the teacher should directly communicate information, but direct instruction often serves students best when it comes after their own discovery activities, as a way to formalize and secure their new knowledge.

When teaching mathematics, teachers can use instructional strategies related to guided discovery. In this approach, the teacher gives students a mathematical problem or task to tackle that is intended to reveal an important mathematical idea. The problem is complex, often requiring collaboration between students, and no clear procedure for determining an answer is known by or given to the students. The students must then use their prior knowledge, their problem-solving skills, and any resources at their disposal (like manipulatives, modeling software, peers, etc.) to figure out a process to arrive at a defensible, sensible answer. In a good guided discovery activity, there will be multiple different ways to tackle the activity, and often multiple different solutions that are valid for different reasons. Some important resources that can get you started with guided discovery include the NCTM Illuminations database, and Dan Meyer’s bank of open-ended mathematical tasks. Further, the websites of PBS and the Discovery Channel contain resources for both mathematics and science.

When teaching science, students shouldn’t copy notes or engage in cookie-cutter labs where they move through a pre-determined procedure – they should be engaged in scientific inquiry and argumentation practices where they actively ask and revise questions; observe, record, and model real phenomena; construct explanations; and engage in scientific argument from evidence. Understandably, student-directed inquiry and argumentation takes time to foster in classrooms and appropriate scaffolding is absolutely necessary. By making certain revisions to the format and structure of many traditional lab activities, teachers can ease the transition to more inquiry-based and student-centered modes of learning. Science also lends itself well to project-based instruction, where students collaboratively investigate complex, real world problems and create a product or solution to a driving question over an extended period of time. As students engage in project-based methods, they learn fundamental science concepts and principles that are relevant and applicable to their daily lives. In addition to the vast array of materials available from the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), a variety of other resources are available as you begin to implement inquiry into science lessons, including Web-based Inquiry Science Environment (WISE). Finally, the Understanding Science website contains various resources for teachers about how to teach students about the nature of scientific inquiry, how to address student misconceptions, and also contains lesson resources.

Engineering is emerging as a subject that is increasingly being taught in K-12 schools, and research on engineering education – how to teach students engineering concepts – is becoming more and more prominent. In particular, the focus has been teaching students engineering through engineering design methods. In this approach, students are first present with a real-world design challenge where they must solve of problem or create a product for a client. They brainstorm ideas on how to meet the challenge, conduct relevant research on the STEM concepts involved in the context of their design plan, and then create a product or model. They test the adequacy of their product with an eye towards how they can iteratively improve it to better meet their goals. Once they have a final product that they are satisfied with, they present their work to their clients and other stakeholders to gain further feedback and insight. A well-known model for teaching engineering design in this way is the STAR Legacy Cycle, and recent compilations of model-eliciting activities and the City Technology website offer some initial ideas for what engineering design challenges might look like. This article also provides a useful guide for how to teach engineering concepts in K-12.

Finally, across science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, the Spark 101 website gives great video-based activities relating to STEM fields.