by Benjamin Hebebrand, Head of School, Quest Academy
Education in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, nowadays referred to as STEM, has risen to the forefront as a result of poor performance by U.S. students on international testing in addition to an ever-increasing need to innovate to remain competitive in a global economy that is migrating toward ever-increasing levels of automation. A closer look at best practices in gifted science education shows that our field has for a long time embraced the idea of exploratory STEM education.
Exemplary instruction in these subjects, particularly science, centers on a hands-on approach. The National Research Council in 1996 simply stated that “learning science is something that students do, not something that is done to them.”
The hands-on approach is absolutely congruent with research that identifies personality traits of scientists. This research cites qualities such as “risk-taking, autonomous, unconventional, original, persistent, attentive toward unusual details, independent, playful, disliking ambiguity, interested in art/humanities, curious, intellectually courageous, and daring.”
Such qualities do not lend themselves well to traditional science instruction that first places emphasis on “knowledge of facts, laws, theories, and applications.” This emphasis has been so heavily imprinted that the actual playful part of science – the laboratory exercises or activities – has served the purpose of verification.
Simply completing labs as a means to verify book-learned concepts and facts is not conducive to shaping scientists to whom we essentially entrust the notion of problem-solving. Nor does the idea of verification conjure up images of innovation.
The field of gifted education long ago has identified problem-solving as a necessary component of high quality science instruction particularly aimed at gifted students. Robert Sternberg already in 1982 wrote in a Roeper Review article entitled “Teaching Scientific Thinking to Gifted Students” that gifted science education should emulate what scientists do and therefore should focus on “a) problem-finding; b) problem-solving; c) problem re-evaluation, and d) reporting.” The idea to allow students to identify a scientific problem rather than being assigned such a problem is nowadays a central idea in STEM education – quite frankly an idea that has always been part of science project learning (i.e. high quality science fairs) that is commonly found in gifted education. Sternberg views problem-solving as “problem identification, selection of the process for solving, solution monitoring, responding to feedback, and implementing an action plan,” whereby re-evaluation “requires analyzing the outcomes that may be expected or unintended.” Clearly, Sternberg views science instruction as a process that is capped by reporting – the action that “clarifies thinking and is an integral part of the scientific process.”
STEM education seeks to employ a design process to enhance the problem-solving component. By incorporating technology and engineering, students will design and engineer practical solutions to scientific problems. The Teaching Institute for Excellence in STEM outlines similar process skills as Sternberg’s. The components are 1) Identify the Need or Problem; 2) Research the Need or Problem; 3) Develop Possible Solutions; 4) Select the Best Possible Solutions; 5) Construct a Prototype; 6) Test and Evaluate the Solution(s); 7) Communicate the Solution(s); and 8) Re-design.
The added design element in STEM education clearly invokes the idea of creativity. Design not only is about function, but also form. As such, STEM nowadays has added the A for Art to form STEAM. The interdisciplinary nature of STEAM also is a long-held practice in gifted education – enhancing the learning experience in multi-faceted domains.