Tapping the Power of Inquiry-Based Learning with STEM

By Dr. Robert Corbin, Discovery Education’s Director of Global STEM Initiatives.

Educators nationwide are building student buy-in for STEM education by challenging learners to solve real-world challenges.  By simultaneously showing students how STEM skills can help to solve complex community problems while demonstrating STEM’s power to improve their personal futures—including these examples where schools use STEM-based lessons to explore issues such as plastics recycling and solar energy--students are able to more readily see the purpose for literacy and numeracy, as this article shows.

Another great example of a school system successfully using real-world challenges to drive student engagement in STEM/STEAM can be seen in Indiana’s Fort Wayne Community Schools (FWCS).  In this school system, teachers are stepping back and giving students the opportunity to reason through complex challenges on their own, which in turn, drives student ownership of learning and deeper student engagement in instruction.

Get Nichols, FWCS’s chief of school leadership, said that simply coaching students to deliver the correct answer in today’s digital world isn’t always the best path to truly preparing a child for the challenges ahead. Instead, she suggests, the creative application of information is far more relevant to today’s learners, because it supports using resources to solve real-world problems.

“We want to get out of the memorization business,” said Nichols. “I want students to be thinking about how they can use information to consider real-world problems.”

The moment Nichols knew her schools were on the right track was when she witnessed a group of  4th grade students getting a math problem wrong. As part of real-world project, the teacher had given the students the area of a figure and its length, but intentionally left out the width. Students drew shapes on their tablets, but when the teacher gave them the formula for area in a word problem, they mistakenly multiplied the two numbers they had: area and length. 

When the teacher told the class they were mistaken, the class expressed confusion until a student recognized the issue and blurted out, “You already told us the area!”

Suddenly, their tablets lit up, and students reread the word problem, putting their new skills to work. They’d learned the key takeaway of the lesson, how to calculate the width of their shapes. They’d discovered an organic solution — all on their own — to a common math problem traditionally associated with rote memorization of a formula.

“It was that productive process of struggling and failing that made them realize, ‘I misread that problem.’ That’s inquiry-based learning,” she said.

Fort Wayne Community Schools is one of many school systems across the country that is helping students develop the important STEM/STEAM skills they will need for success beyond graduation. Supported by Discovery Education’s STEM Connect, the innovative and engaging digital interdisciplinary K-8 supplemental resource built on a 4Cs STEM skills framework and Discovery Education’s professional learning services, Fort Wayne Community Schools have built dynamic digital learning environments that challenge students not only to identify the problems around them, but also find critically derived solutions to those challenges.

Thanks to a combination of great school leaders like Nichols, innovative classroom teachers, and deeply embedded, solution-oriented partners like Discovery Education, school districts like Fort Wayne are now ahead of the curve in STEM education.

The challenge mentioned by Nichols above is a microcosm for how teachers can use real-world challenges to drive student buy-in to STEM and STEAM.  However, we know that there are many other ways to drive student engagement in STEM and STEAM teaching and learning.  When creating STEM/STEAM learning experiences, always remember to put yourself in the place of the student, and ask:

  • Is the experience interesting? 
  • Is it relatable?
  • Does it affect the student personally? 
  • Does it challenge the student to lean forward? 

If you are able to answer all those questions in the affirmative, you are well on your way to creating dynamic STEM/STEAM experiences that will engage all learners.

Robert Corbin also is a North Carolina Science Leadership Fellow, associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and adjunct professor at Wingate University. He can be reached at rcorbin@discoveryed.com.

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Teacher and student using a 3-D printer in class