The Next Generation Science Standards have been constructed to emphasize two broad areas: (1) the scientific concepts and processes that serve as the foundation for different science disciplines; and (2) the application of scientific understanding through engineering and design. The question facing many science teachers around the country is how to design learning experiences that foster an understanding of engineering and design and are likely to sustain students’ engagement. Most teachers have been trained in the knowledge and theory of their discipline, with some emphasis on the skills a scientist needs to practice their craft. Few have been trained in the application of their discipline. The joy of learning science comes from understanding the concepts that have meaning and relevance; however, greater joy comes from learning experiences in which we are expected to apply what we have learned, tinker with their application without fear of failure, and see tangible outcomes from our thinking and tinkering.
Science teachers, most of whom are trained on the theory and knowledge of their discipline, will need some professional development in application of scientific principles in their area of interest. How are the knowledge and concepts of biology applied to solve real problems that will interest students and help them appreciate the connection between biology and engineering or biology and math? What are some of the real world problems in which students can invest their energy? Engineering is Elementary is a website devoted to addressing some of these questions. Their mission is to: “support educators and children with curricula and professional development that develop engineering literacy.” The engineering curriculum, kindergarten through eighth grade, can be downloaded for free and they offer professional development for educators. There are organizations devoted to helping teachers make a shift in designing curricula that integrate ideas and skills from related fields of study.
Another resource that could be helpful in designing an engineering curriculum is the Museum of Science in Boston, MA. They reference the National Center for Technological Literacy as a partner in their efforts to create an engineering curriculum that is part of a museum’s efforts to engage students in thinking and experiencing the application of science. Here is what they say about engineering on their website:
What do you think about when you hear the word, “engineering?” Do you think of men in lab coats huddling over a microchip? Pocket protectors and slide rules? The truth is, engineering is really about solving problems. About creating “technologies.” And when we say “technologies” we don’t just mean computerized gadgets and space-aged polymers. The word “technology” really refers to anything that helps to make up the human-made world around us.
The Museum of Science has developed five programs that can help schools think about ways to apply math and science principles.
- The Gateway Project
- Engineering the Future curriculum for grades 9-12
- Engineering Adventures for after-school programs
- Engineering is Elementary for grades K-8
- Building Math, a math program for grades 6-8
Each of these programs is a model for what integration in STEM might look like.
Resources Area for Teaching (RAFT) is another potential resource for teachers looking to integrate science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). RAFT is a non-profit organization in California that provides teachers with ideas, resources, materials, and curricula that focus on encouraging students to learn by doing. Their mission is defined on their website this way:
Learning by doing. This simple yet powerful concept has been RAFT’s objective since its inception. Hands-on education translates abstract and complex subjects by incorporating activities that help children learn by doing. This ignites their interest, nurtures their natural curiosity, and also helps maintain a lifelong love of learning.
On the RAFT website a teacher can download IDEA SHEETS designed to teach concepts through a hands-on approach. The interesting thing about many of these idea sheets, especially those related to STEM, is that students are asked to apply what they’ve learned and engineer and build prototypes. You know the saying, “Tell me, I’ll forget. Show me, I’ll remember. Involve me, I’ll understand.” Deeper understanding of concepts happens for students when they are asked to integrate and apply rather than passively listen and restate what they heard.
Squishy Circuits, developed at the University of St. Thomas School of Engineering by AnneMarie Thomas, are another resource for teachers looking to integrate engineering and design into their science curriculum. Watch Thomas’ TED Talk on her idea that led to the squishy circuits movement. The interesting thing about Thomas is that she was also a faculty member at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA. So she blends her background in science, engineering, design, and art into her work with squishy circuits.
If you want to learn more about the application of engineering and design principles and ideas to science and math curricula, I would suggest reading the book, Design, Make, Play: Growing the Next Generation of STEM Innovators by Margaret Honey and David Kanter. In addition, the book, Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering and Engineering in the Classroom, by Sylvia Martinez and Gary Stager, is another great resource for learning by doing.