Project-Based Learning (PBL) is the current teaching practice being implemented in classrooms to develop 21st century skills and engage students in a deeper level of learning by presenting authentic, complex problems for students to solve over an extended period of time. There is plenty of educational research to support the methodology, however time and curriculum in varying districts make effective PBL a challenge.
PBL requires time and curriculum alignment that districts across the country simply do not have. What can you do when instructional time is precious because of mandated days for testing? What can you do when your content is not aligned with other content areas?
There is an alternative to PBL that is easy to access and garners the same measurable results: STEM pedagogy. For a decade, STEM has been on the education platform, do we really understand what STEM is? The assumption is that the acronym means exactly what it stands for: science, technology, engineering, and math. STEM is being offered as a class or offered in isolation in science and math classes. STEM is the misunderstood cousin of PBL. STEM is a pedagogy that develops 21st century skills and engages students in deeper levels of learning through authentic and complex problem solving experiences.
How to STEM
STEM pedagogy can be accessed in any classroom by any content teacher. There is no need to cross team plan with other content areas or carve out large chunks of instructional time to problem solve.
STEM pedagogy uses a 5E lesson plan approach. The 5Es are: engage, explore, explain, evaluate, and elaborate. The 5E lesson establishes the framework of the problem to be solved. The lesson can be tailored to meet instructional time constraints—in other words, it can be a week long or a month long. The 5Es offer teachers the opportunity to meet the needs of their students. Teachers often have awesome ideas for content but aren't sure how to design the lessons. STEM is misinterpreted because the creation of models and prototypes are considered "crafts" rather than actual problem solving.
Next Generation Science Standards, Common Core State Standards, and local standards are easily connected in STEM pedagogical practice with a 5E lesson plan. Stepping outside the box and looking at standards as they relate to instruction allows opportunities for students to grow and flourish. However, there is some risk-taking that can make most educators, even the seasoned veteran, a little uncomfortable. Giving students a question and then turning them loose to solve it is a little akin to taking the training wheels off a bicycle for the first time.
The main ingredient to successful STEM practice is to allow students room to figure it out. It's tempting to give them answers but resisting that urge and guiding them instead is key.
What STEM Pedagogy Looks Like in Practice
I implemented STEM pedagogy in a seventh grade language arts class before reading the novel Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick. The story is centered around the lead character's brother who has leukemia. Many students in the classroom had no personal connection to childhood leukemia. Over a one-week period before introducing the novel, the students researched leukemia, created a model of healthy blood cells and cancer cells, presented their models with a narrative to explain the disease to a group of students, and launched the Pennies for Patients fundraiser for children with leukemia.
When the novel was introduced with a book talk, every student was invested when they learned that leukemia played a role in the plot. Every student read the book both in class and at home. We read the climax together as a read aloud in the class and (spoiler alert) there was a need for tissues. The students also raised more money than ever for the Pennies for Patients fundraiser that year.
Through the 5E lesson students completed authentic research on a topic. At the same time, the seventh grade students were learning about human body systems, and so they generated questions for further investigation. They also used math skills to look at and analyze data surrounding leukemia. Cross cutting concepts and standards were covered in all facets with this 5E lesson.
Need More Evidence for STEM Pedagogy?
How about introducing some science fiction into science class? While the seventh graders were learning about body systems, they were reading Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson in science class. Students were able to make connections between the changes that happened to Dr. Jekyll when he introduced chemicals into his body.
The novel was a segue into the chemistry unit and students developed public service messages that were broadcast over the morning announcements about tobacco, caffeine, and drugs. They conducted the research and they produced the media products.
If you are about to teach a novel in language arts, why not look for real world connections? For example, many novels cover issues about the environment, catastrophic events, and social justice. All of these can be connected to complex problems where students can engage, explore, and explain.
Before reading Life as We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer in eighth grade language arts, have students build models to explain why the moon is so important to the dynamics of Earth's systems, make predictions about what would happen if the system was disrupted, and develop solutions to those problems.
Ask kids in social studies how calendars are created and have students make something to explain it. The Civil War is in your curriculum? Have students create a game about the Underground Railroad or Reconstruction. Then let them play the games in class. Build a simple telescope when talking about the Renaissance. The list is endless.
The Humanities and Sciences Together
And the Oscar goes to … STEAM! The arts and sciences are meant to be together. Building a well-rounded student means including creativity and fostering deeper understanding through questioning. When students engage with content by questioning and designing solutions, there is no limit to what they can discover. Engage with students with arts integration by including music in the classroom. Display art and ask them what they see or wonder. Art integration routines can be included in any classroom on any day to help students engage in the world in a new way. A student doesn't have to be a musician, dancer, actor, singer, or Picasso to engage in the arts. They simply need the exposure so they can frame the question "I wonder… ?"
A Case for STEM
The 5E Lesson for STEM—and use of Next Generation Science Standards—unlocks so much potential for problem solving, authentic research, and creating and presenting solutions. Students make real connections to content, develop deeper understanding, and experience higher levels of rigor and grit.
The Project-Based Learning model and STEM pedagogy are closely related and have similar outcomes, while STEM is more accessible and adaptable than PBL. Teachers who have limited resources, including time and budget, can use STEM practices in the classroom to develop 21st century skills and foster deeper meaning by infusing multiple disciplines into a new whole.
Technology helps us communicate; math is the language; science and engineering are the processes for thinking; and all this leads to innovation. Project-Based Learning may fade away, as many practices do over time as the education pendulum swings. However, the need for STEM will continue to be in demand as we ensure that we are producing students who can improvise, adapt, and overcome challenges.
Students integrating their knowledge and using all available tools at their disposal to solve complex problems that haven't even been created yet … that's the value of STEM.
Michele Schuler is an eighth grade science teacher at Meade Middle School, Fort Meade, Maryland.
Published September 2018.