Science Education: Experiential Learning

With school out across most of the state (except for year-round schools), the Arizona legislature out until next January, and the state school board keeping a tight rein on the superintendent, for now the attacks on science education here have mostly stopped. For that happy reason, I want to talk about a more pleasant topic: experiential learning in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education.

I am more than a little jealous of today’s students, especially in the STEM fields. They have opportunities today that I could not even dream of when I was their age in the 1960s and ‘70s. While, sadly, these opportunities are not available everywhere, where they do exist, they’re often simply amazing. And we’re not talking about at just the high school or college level, but all the way down to Kindergarten in some cases.

Hands On, Brains On

Anybody who’s raised kids, or just watched them, knows that they’re experiential learners. Tell a child not to do something and what are they likely to do? Do it! While this is an ongoing source of frustration for parents—“What were you thinking?”—it’s a reflection of a lot of things, including that kids—and all of us, really—learn some things best when we do them ourselves. Reading about it in a book, watching a video, seeing a demonstration; those are fine. But doing it? That’s something else entirely.

Call it “hands on, brains on.” Active participation means more involvement, more concentration, more focus… more learning.

Sure, when I was a kid, we had hands-on stuff in science classes, but we were simply replicating what had been done thousands, if not millions of times before. Maybe that’s OK for establishing basic principles, but there was little hope of discovery: the results were not just expected, they were pre-ordained, even at the college level.

Today, elementary and middle school kids are participating in programs like FIRST LEGO League. As they progress into high school, they advance to FIRST Robotics. (FIRST is an acronym for “For Inspiration & Recognition of Science & Technology.”) In these programs, the student teams are given a task and a box of supplies and have to build and program a robot to do specific tasks. That’s about all there is in the way of instructions: “Use these bits and pieces to create a device that will do these tasks. Good luck.” Now, of course, the kids don’t go into this project cold; they get lots of training and education along the way, but the programs release their inner creativity and imagination as they figure out how to apply the principles they’ve been introduced to.

CyberPatriot logoThe Air Force Association (I’m a member) sponsors two programs of its own: CyberPatriot and StellarXplorers. In CyberPatriot, middle- and high-school students learn about computer network security principles and practices, and then have to figure out how to fix simulated networks that have been infected by real-world malware. The Today Show recently did a segment on an all-girls CyberPatriot team.

In StellarXplorers, high schoolers are tasked to design something like a satellite that has to pass over a certain spot on the earth every X number of days in order to be able to take photos of a certain resolution under specific lighting conditions. That means designing the satellite’s structure, the payload, the booster, and the orbit while staying within weight and cost limits.

These are tasks that real-world computer scientists and rocket scientists have to do!

At my alma mater, the University of Colorado-Boulder, students as young as freshmen participate in real research projects. The engineering college has its own “maker space” in which the students design and create devices using 3D printers and other tools. CU-Boulder is by no means unique in this regard: maker spaces exist in schools all the way down to the elementary level.

Oh, to be a kid again, right?

The Need and the Payoff

What’s sad is that not every child has access to these kinds of programs. Maker spaces and the FIRST programs can cost a lot of money. Sponsorships are available but teachers and administrators have to know about them, be able to apply for them, have the support of their districts and communities for them, and perhaps most important of all, be able to spend the time with their students on them, rather than having to concentrate on discipline and even just getting the students into the school building.

Yet if the kids come to school and get into one of these programs, the changes can be remarkable, even literally life-changing. Participating in these programs and having success teaches girls and kids of color that they, too, along with the white and Asian boys, can succeed in these fields. They, too, have the ability to do the work. And oh, by the way, this stuff can be fun!

And when the experience of learning is fun, amazing things happen. That’s the added form of experiential learning that needs to get more attention.

In a nation that is falling farther and farther behind its competitors in the STEM fields, not just in education but in the workforce, this is a change that can’t happen soon enough.

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