The challenge of STEM - Education Matters Magazine

The challenge of STEM

STEM education is capturing policy attention at the moment as a key curriculum focus, writes Russell Tytler of Deakin University. He talks to Education Matters about some of the recent innovations in the teaching and learning of STEM in the primary school years.

Much of this focus is driven by concerns about wealth creation and global competitiveness. This is somewhat at odds, one might think, with the broader education agenda of personal growth in skills and dispositions, and citizenship, emphasized by the Melbourne Declaration. This concern to engage students in STEM pathways and improve the learning of STEM has increasingly extended into the primary school years, given growing evidence that orientations towards the STEM subjects and to STEM thinking working are largely established in the primary and early secondary school years.

Alongside this largely economic agenda, there are some interesting developments in thinking about STEM, associated with growing advocacy of interdisciplinarity as reflecting how these disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) interrelate in the real world. With this, there are calls for a focus in the curriculum on STEM skills which include problem solving and design thinking, critical and creative thinking, and quantitative skills. Increasingly STEM has come to be associated with calls for integration of these subjects around projects based on authentic problems. In this, engineering design is often a driving force, with projects based on such things as design of structures, optimisation of cart or boat design, clothing or personal artefact design, etc, with science and mathematics being developed as needed in the design process. For other schools, STEM is centred around the incorporation of digital technologies into the curriculum. In truth, there are many types of interpretation of this call for interdisciplinary STEM, and a preferred curriculum model has thus far not been established.

A large US review study of integrated STEM – titled ‘STEM Integration in K-12 Education: Status, Prospects, and an Agenda for Research’, by Margaret Honey, Greg Pearson and Heidi Schweingruber (2014) – found that while there was evidence of greater student engagement in the STEM subjects, there was little evidence of enhanced learning, especially in mathematics. It has been argued that while STEM project-based activities can be engaging and can develop skills such as design and collaborative problem solving, they often lack coherence in the way that knowledge in the individual subjects is represented. For science and for mathematics in particular, the learning can be disjointed or trivialised unless carefully planned, and there is not generally a program of progression in knowledge and skills that can be associated with STEM that is distinct from disciplinary knowledge. Thus, while STEM encompasses four disciplines, the real challenge for the school curriculum concerns how science and mathematics knowledge can be developed through interdisciplinary challenges.

In an Australian Research Council funded project, ‘Enriching Maths and Science Learning: An Interdisciplinary Approach’, a Deakin led international team is collaborating with schools in Australia and the US to investigate how science and mathematics can be productively combined to deepen student learning in each. Underpinning the approach is a guided inquiry pedagogy where students are challenged and supported to invent, evaluate and refine representations (such as annotated drawings, maps, graphs) in a process that reflects the core knowledge building practices of the disciplines. In combining the subjects, we look for concepts that lie at the intersection of the two disciplines but that are dealt with differently in the two subjects. Thus, in a Grade 1 ecology study involving the charting of living things in sample plots in the school ground, students discussed the need for equal size plots, searching and counting processes, and how to tabulate and map their living things. They produced maps of the plot, and tallies which they transformed into graphs that were compared and discussed such that their graphing processes were refined. Sharing of class data allowed the representation of variation in numbers of the same animal (e.g. worms, spiders) across habitats and discussion of why this might be the case.
Thus, the science investigation opened up a need for mathematical representational work, and the mathematics led back into questions of the science.

The representational and modeling work was core to these inquiry processes. Teachers developed their pedagogies around refined questioning strategies to draw on student work to develop understanding. They were very surprised, for instance, at the development of Grade 1 students’ graphical skills well beyond expectations. This was related to the purposeful nature of the task and students’ appreciation of the measurements underpinning the numbers. Discussion centred around sampling, data handling and variation in mathematics, and habitat and adaptation in science.

One of the challenges for this work has been fitting the sequences into the curriculum in ways that teachers understand. The mathematics for instance grows out of the investigation as a need for quantification, or articulation of spatial thinking. We argue that this is a natural and powerful way for mathematics to be developed, but to the teachers it looks very different compared to traditions of mathematics teaching. Over the next two years we plan to extend the number of activity sequences we develop, and work with teachers to refine the pedagogy. We are tracking the development of understandings and also ‘representational competence’ of a set of case study students over the three years, anticipating that this way of working yields cumulative benefits.

Our intention is to pioneer new ways of thinking about the interdisciplinary interactions between science and mathematics in ways that preserve the integrity of these core subjects through innovative approaches to their teaching and learning. In this way we see our work as contributing to the challenge of STEM.

Russell Tytler is Alfred Deakin Professor and Chair in Science Education at Deakin University. His research covers student learning and reasoning in Science, and extends to pedagogy and teacher and school change. He researches and writes on student engagement with Science and Mathematics, school-community partnerships and STEM curriculum policy.