One reason I and others promote STEM or STEAM education so passionately goes far beyond the outstanding job opportunities the field affords. Beyond this is the abundance and importance in STEAM of so-called “soft skills”such as problem identification, creativity, innovative thinking, collaboration, critical thinking, etc. Creating a generation of students who are thusly skilled is not just vital to ensuring competitiveness in the current and future global economy, it equips them for life. This is particularly true when paired with other traits/skills, such as adaptability, organization, empathy, initiative, and grit.  As I am preparing for a talk at the STEAM Academy at TCEA next week, the following are some ideas and classroom strategies to promote STEAM-related skills, including critical thinking and problem solving in any subject area:

  1. Stimulate wonder. In any subject area, teachers should work to create situations that will make students scratch their heads and experience a certain level of confusion leading to curiosity. I don’t want to confuse this idea with what I was taught as a young teacher was the “anticipatory set”, which was basically review at worst and far from engaging or stimulating on a good day. Think of a provocative statement, an argument, a perplexing question, a quick but powerful video, or a dramatic demonstration. Our kids need more opportunities to get really engaged in a topic and experience fascination and wonder.
  2. Solicit questions. Once students have been hooked, get them asking good, probing, open-ended questions.

    Image Source: Right Question Institute

    As discussed here before, this is no given, since students all but forget how to ask such questions by middle school.  Re-teach them using a process such as the Question Formulation Technique and give them daily opportunities to practice.

  3. Be less direct. Let your students sort through processes without so much guidance from you. I know I was very guilty of step-by-stepping most of the labs in my science classroom to death when I was still teaching middle school. The best ones, though, were ones where I followed my own advice above and set the stage with a statement or demonstration, then let the kids figure out how to explain, prove, disprove, etc. on their own or collaboratively.
  4. Forsake the multiple choice. I have heard “assessment experts” defend the venerable A, B, C, or D (all of the above) test format for years, claiming it is poor question design that has weakened the art. I believe anything worth learning cannot be sufficiently expressed and assessed with such a format and with no opportunity to see into the student’s thinking. The product of such assessments has no relevance or meaning in the real world, and is I believe multiple choice assessments are a reflection of teacher laziness or inexperience (Before anyone gets your feathers too ruffled, I was as guilty as anyone. Remember those clickers? Ugh.). Leave the format to the people who are paid big bucks to construct shallow assessments and disengage our kids–the testing companies. Instead, utilize performance and alternative assessments, such as rubrics, face-to-face conferencing, self-assessment, demonstrations/presentations, physical products, etc.
  5. Failure doesn’t end with an “F”. There are times in life when you get one shot to get something right, like choosing when to cross the street in heavy traffic. Most of life outside of school, however, is based on a series of trial-and-error events and choices. Whether designing a science project, solving a math problem,  writing a narrative essay, or learning to shoot a basketball, students need to tackle tasks that require evaluation and improvement. Our obsession with grades (in the face of much research demonstrating their failures) means that we too often give students failing marks for a failed attempt, usually the first attempt, when we should be offering meaningful feedback into the process the student is going through. If your school/district requires grades, use them in conjunction with actual feedback that makes the numbers have actual meaning. But, as I advised a robotics instructor in my own district, be careful not to view a step in the process as the end, and be careful not to see a project that has not met hoped for goals as a failure. I watched a robotics team build no fewer than 20 prototypes of 1 model without achieving their very lofty desired outcome, but the group made strides and learned everything I could have hoped. An “F” would have been both crushing and inappropriate.

This is a work in progress, so please give me any ideas or feedback you might have. If I use your comments/ideas, I will even give you a shoutout in my presentation. Thanks!

STEM students image source: