STEM Education: Purpose, Process and Scalability

Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics

STEM Education finds consistent support in Maker-Based Learning through Design Thinking

“STEM Education is far more than a “convenient integration” of its four disciplines, rather it encompasses “real-world, problem-based learning” that links the disciplines “through cohesive and active teaching and learning approaches” ” (STEM Task Force Report, 2014)

STEM was initially proposed in the 90s in the United States, with the acronym SMET, as the integration of areas of knowledge aimed to promote an educational process with applications in the real world.

At the end of the first decade of the 21st century, the approach gained strength in the United States through the Innovate to Educate Program, proposed by the Barack Obama administration. The US president referred to this program as “America’s new Sputnik moment”, referring to the Soviet rocket launch in the 1950s, beating the Americans in the space race. The “Sputnik moment” led his country to invest in research and education, promoting a wave of innovation in the country, creating many jobs.

The multidisciplinary approach is also transdisciplinary, covering areas of knowledge that break with the four disciplines of the acronym, and open doors for rethinking the fragmented education model, in force for decades.

By promoting the development of skills related to critical thinking and problem-solving, STEM Education also makes students understand their place in society as protagonists of the world they live in. An important ally for STEM education is Maker-based Learning.

  • Maker-based Learning: the power of learning by doing

Experiential education places the student at the center of their learning. Currently, schools and educational networks are investing in innovation spaces, with resources for rapid prototyping such as Laser Cutters, 3D Printers, Plotters, Milling Machines and equipment such as Dremel rotary tools, drills, screwdrivers and equipment generally used in workshops (hammers, handsaw, screwdriver). These spaces are named Makerspaces.

One of the inspirations for Makerspaces is the Digital Fabrication and rapid prototyping environment called FabLab, which originated in 2002 at MIT through the collaboration between the Grupo de Invenções de Base and the Center for Bits and Atoms (CBA) with the objective of bringing Digital Fabrication to common people (Blikstein & Krannich, 2013). These spaces enhance and streamline the production of artifacts, enabling projects that are closer to reality to be prototyped.

In this way, Maker-Based Learning teaches the learner how to deal with challenges and face an unexpected problem for which there is no pre-established explanation, acquiring skills necessary to participate in the construction of new skills (Gavassa, 2020). However, it is important to consider the integration of Maker Spaces into the school curriculum, accompanied by actions so that their use provides authentic and meaningful learning experiences (Fernandez et al., 2021).

  • Purpose, Process and Scalability

The triad purpose, process and scalability are important elements for STEM Education to be implemented in a local context, that is, in a classroom or school, and in a broader context, such as public and private education networks.

I – Purpose – Case: Brazilian School Initiative “Math Maker”

Purpose (noum) – why you do something or why something exists (Cambrige Dictionary, 2023)

It seems obvious, but having a well-defined purpose is very important for the successful implementation of initiatives related to STEM Education in schools and teaching networks.
For example, it is important to define a generative theme, such as sustainability, environmental protection or renewable energy, which are important topics to be debated by students anywhere in the world, because how the next generation will deal with these issues will shape the future.

Botany STEM Project through chart reading

Botany STEM Project through chart reading

A case developed in a Brazilian high school is the Math Maker Project. The initiative was built with the purpose of introducing educational activities in basic education that encourage debates for the implementation of actions carried out by students that contribute to solutions for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) during STEM classes.

Math Maker Project – In order to explore Mathematics as a language in which students are empowered to put their ideas into practice through STEM projects, Mathematics Maker is an elective course created for high school students to be protagonists in their educational process, appropriating it if from Makerspace resources.

It’s a school subject based on Discovery Learning (DL) and the Project-Based Learning (PBL) methodology.

The DL considers that activities where students initially explore concepts, asking themselves questions and formulating their own theory of a phenomenon, before receiving formal instruction, provide learning that goes beyond a specific subject (Schneider and Blikstein 2015).

Learning occurs as a result of handling, structuring and transforming information, generating new knowledge. In learning mathematical concepts, from the development of projects, the student elaborates a conjecture, formulates hypotheses and makes discoveries using inductive or deductive processes, observations and extrapolation. The essential element in discovering new information is that the student must actively participate in formulating and obtaining knowledge (Prasad, 2011).

In addition, the methodology that guides the Math Maker subject is Project-Based Learning. The PBL proposes the construction of knowledge through a long and continuous work of research, with the objective of answering a question, a challenge or a problem. From then on, students begin a process of exploration, establishing hypotheses and looking for resources to develop the project. It involves the practical application of the information obtained until reaching a final product or a satisfactory solution to the initial question. Learning assessment is done during the process and after the presentation of the final product.

An important factor in the successful implementation of STEM education is the process. DL and PBL in Maker Math are conducted through the Design Thinking Process.

II – Process – The power of Design Thinking

Process (noum) – a series of actions that you take in order to do something (Cambrige Dictionary, 2023)

After defining the purpose of the educational activity, the organization of processes for the development of projects is a very important step for the implementation of actions related to the STEM discipline.

Educators and students are frustrated when the steps are not clear, so the implementation of processes for the development of the projects, such as Design Thinking, is very important.

Design Thinking (DT) is the set of ideas and insights to address problems related to future acquisition of information, knowledge analysis and proposed solutions. As an approach, the ability to combine empathy in the context of a problem is considered, in order to place people at the center of the development of a project; creativity to generate solutions and reason to analyze and adapt the solutions to the context.

Design Thinking Process - Understand x Explore x Materialize

Design Thinking Process – Understand x Explore x Materialize

Through the DT process students can learn how to approach problems from a human-centered perspective, which can help them develop the skills needed to become more effective problem-solvers and innovators.

The packaged and accessible nature of design thinking makes it scalable, and it’s an important subject to be discussed: How to make STEM Education become more than a particular experimental project?

III – Scalability – FabLearn organization in the city of Sobral / Ceará – Brazil

Scalabilty (noum) – the ability of a business or system to grow larger (Cambrige Dictionary, 2023)

Thinking about scalability for actions related to STEM Education is very important for this teaching approach to become increasingly democratic in the context of basic education, increasing its reach and efficiency.

Educational policies aimed at popularizing technological resources, digital literacy and scientific literacy, as well as investment in sick training and incentives that enable educators to specialize in building a multidisciplinary school environment, are important initiatives so that the approach is no longer implemented in particular situations and gain breadth in the educational context.

In fact, the implementation of an active and significant educational process, which breaks with the status quo, depends on the union between educators, managers, parents and students, who need to agree on the importance of education in the current millennium undergoing changes and dialogue with the current global context. A powerful path is the establishment of a new culture of integration and collaboration between Academia and Society.

In the Brazilian city of Sobral, Ceará, the democratization of technological resources, digital literacy and teacher training is a public policy. To structure these actions, in 2018 the municipality inaugurated the first FabLearn Laboratories, in partnership with the Transformative Learning Technologies Lab (TLTL – Columbia University). The objective of implementing the laboratories is to integrate principles of engineering, design, robotics and computing in the Science classes of students in its teaching network, introducing STEM Education actions in K12 schools.

FabLearn - Partnership between TLTL (Columbia University) and the Educational Department of Sobral

FabLearn – Partnership between TLTL (Columbia University) and the Educational Department of Sobral

This partnership between the Education Department and Academia has generated important results such as studies and publications, notably the IDEIA Curriculum (Acronym in Portuguese for Invention, Discovery, Investigation and Learning). The team that wrote the proposal points out that the curriculum is based on three pillars: 1 – different levels so that schools with different realities, 2 – teacher training and 3 – student participation, that is, Laboratories and Curriculum, aligned, in promoting of a personalized education that meets the local demand but that promotes a global vision.

Scaling up initiatives for an education that values ​​investigation and experimentation is a challenge, but the current context in which society finds itself requires urgent changes in the training of the current generation of students who will lead the public and private sectors in the future.

Issues such as climate change, hunger, poverty and pandemics need to be discussed at school, but not just discussed, they need solutions, and it is important that the school train future problem solvers, prepared to promote innovative, sustainable and collaborative solutions.

An example of public policy on a national scale is underway in the United States and is called the STEM Education Strategic Plan, Charting a Course for Success: America’s Strategy for STEM Education. The initiative implemented in 2018 is defined as “a federal strategy for the next five years based on a vision for a future where all Americans will have lifelong access to high-quality STEM education and the United States will be the global leader in STEM literacy, innovation, and employment”.

  • Conclusion

The implementation of STEM Education in a broad and systematic way in schools and teaching networks depends on the implementation of a culture of purpose and process, which breaks with traditionalism in the classroom and takes ownership of progressive teaching methodologies.

Understanding, Exploring and Materializing are pillars of Design Thinking that collaborate with an active and meaningful education, supporting the development of a student-centered educational process.

Although discussions that reinforce the importance of student protagonism have been carried out since the beginning of the last century by John Dewey and have found complementary ideas in other educators/researchers such as Vygotsky, Piaget, Papert and Freire, the recent democratization of emerging technologies make these discussions increasingly most current and urgent.

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Fernandez, C., Hochgreb-Haegele, T., & Blikstein, P. (2021). From “Playful Activities” to “Knowledge Building”: A Case Study about a Teacher’s Percpetions on the Role of Experiments. In de Vries, E., Hod, Y., & Ahn, J. (Eds.), Proceedings of the 15th International Conference of the Learning Sciences – ICLS 2021. (pp. 999-1000). Bochum, Germany: International Society of the Learning Sciences.
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Prasad, K. S. (2011). Learning Mathematics by Discovery. Academic Voices: A Multidisciplinary Journal, 1, 31-33
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STEM Task Force Report. (2014). Innovate: a blueprint for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in California public education.