Actions Educators Can Take to Foster STEM Foundational Thinking Skills

In order to guide the development of equitable STEM education as well as foster STEM foundational thinking for all students, educators must create experiences for students that allow learners the time and opportunity to see themselves as STEM students of color who collaborate, apply critical thinking and problem-solving skills to address challenging issues.  These learning experiences need to be high quality, tailored to meet individual learner needs, focused on student learning, research-based, job-embedded, and aligned with school improvement toward STEM foundational thinking.

When teachers create and facilitate STEM instructional activities that enhance critical thinking, students are better able to understand why something has occurred instead of only understanding what has occurred. This deeper understanding “allows the students to better analyze the circumstances surrounding the occurrence and differing viewpoints about the occurrence” (Tsai et al., 2013).  The National Science Education Standards, which were developed by the National Research Council (1996), and updated and renamed the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS, 2016) state that students need multiple opportunities to:

Use scientific inquiry and develop the ability to think and act in ways associated with inquiry, including asking questions, planning and conducting investigations, using appropriate tools and techniques to gather data, thinking critically and logically about relationships between evidence and explanations, constructing and analyzing alternative explanations, and communicating scientific arguments” (p. 105).

Educators can promote the use of scientific inquiry by not only teaching science content, but modeling for students how to ask questions, search for supporting evidence from a variety of sources, and communicate and defend one’s thinking to a real audience.  Having an authentic problem-solving experience is important for students to apply their content knowledge to the real world.  For example, real-world authentic problems are those rooted in a type of learning that is designed for something other than a grade in a teacher’s gradebook.  Authentic learning experiences serve a greater purpose for students: real-world problem solving.  This type of project-based learning engages students in collaborative, real-world problem solving for an actual audience of community stakeholders.  Projects are student-centered and organized around a driving question.  Students engage in tasks and discussions that help them create a real product, performance, or event, thereby deepening their learning (Mergendoller, 2006).  Project-based learning improves students’ problem solving and thinking skills, while engaging them in authentic learning that is meaningful (Berends, Boersma & Weggemann, 2003; Scarborough, Bresnen, Edelmann, Laurent, Newell & Swann, 2004).  This type of interdisciplinary and project-based approach to learning blends the line separating school and the real world (Wagner, Compton, 2012; Couros, 2015; (Boss, Bellanca, 2015; Martinez, Stager 2013).  Doing so gives students insight into the interconnectedness of various curricular content areas and how they can be used together to solve novel problems facing society.  Non-authentic problems are those that are structured solely for the purpose of assigning a grade, preparing for a standardized test, or encouraging student compliance.  These types of activities do not inspire creativity, innovative thinking, or collaborative problem solving.  In fact, they are mainly used in the classroom in order to prepare students for standardized or end-of-unit assessments.

Classrooms that focus on STEM foundational thinking shift students away from learning isolated facts, moving towards experience-based inquiry with multiple opportunities for independent learning.  By using the engineering-design model as a framework for instruction and lesson planning, teachers can advance students’ academic abilities, creativity, and learning by having them design a product in order to demonstrate certain skill sets, content-area standards, accomplish a certain task, or solve a real-world problem.  Students can use this framework as a guide for thinking systematically about a particular problem while focusing on teamwork and open-ended design and emphasizing creativity and feasibility.  Teachers should facilitate discovery for their students so that they are engaged within a specific content area.  In order for teachers to effectively engage their students in reasoning, they must shift their role from that of a lecturer, imparting wisdom for the students, to a facilitator of learning, allowing for discussions and encouraging an open thought process. Teachers need to encourage students to ask questions, evaluate multiple, sometimes conflicting, answers and opinions (Henderson-Hurley & Hurley, 2013; Tsai et al., 2013). Educational philosopher John Dewey always believed that students are motivated to problem solve because they have an “innate love of learning” based on their survival instincts (p. 611). In fact, the simple act of discovery plays a central role in learning. When students “become interested in a problem as a problem and in inquiry and learning for the sake of solving the problem, [student] interest is distinctively intellectual” (Dewey, 1939, p. 614). Students who are strong reasoners will grow up thinking critically about problems and making better decisions as adults; they will be creative, imaginative people who understand the world on a deeper level.  Students need to make connections between classroom writing and practical, real-world applications.  This includes reflecting on problem solving and technical writing for STEM-related jobs.  STEM instructional activities combine oral and written communication with information and technology literacy.