‘I’m Innovating!’ – Hands-on Learning Gets Students Excited about Science

By Vince Bertram, Ed.D.

During a recent visit to a fourth-grade classroom in Missouri, I had the pleasure of witnessing the transformative power of education.

The students’ engineering project required them to get into groups, design building structures using an iPad, and then choose and build one structure together with provided materials. As I walked over to one of the groups, I asked a student to tell me about the group’s design. It became obvious the student had a disability which made it difficult for him to hold the iPad.

His classmates quickly rallied behind him, and encouraged him to present his design. “Tell him how we picked your design to build because it was the best,” one of his classmates said.

These students were learning lessons beyond the specific engineering skills at the core of the project. The student was learning how important he was to his group’s project, and his teammates were learning and demonstrating the importance of encouragement in collaboration. They had learned empathy.

We often set expectations for students’ future achievement based on previous grades and standardized tests. While there is value in testing, we cannot get so consumed in measuring students’ academic achievement in a couple of subjects that we overlook the critical skills they must develop in other areas for true life-long success.

Particularly in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs, curriculum is built to ensure students gain the transportable skills they need to pursue college degrees and careers in fields where jobs are plentiful and high-paying — computer science, engineering, health sciences and more. In addition to transportable career skills, STEM coursework can help students develop life skills, like the perseverance and ingenuity the young man exhibited in overcoming his disability and making the best design, to the empathy and teamwork that the students showed by encouraging him.

That is why sparking students’ interests in STEM subjects and providing opportunities for personal enrichment are important goals for the classroom. To successfully impart the transportable technical skills that will enable our students to follow a trajectory into innovative careers in computer or biomedical science, for example, we must empower them to follow their own pathways to discovery.

While doing a hands-on science or math activity as a group can help students learn STEM knowledge and skills, they also are developing interpersonal and communication skills that will last a lifetime. Working in teams to solve problems in constructive and supporting environments fosters independence in students by helping them find their inner voices and express ideas.

This must begin as early as kindergarten, where generating enthusiasm for STEM subjects begins with activities that nurture curiosity by establishing relevancy between science, math or technology and a student’s daily life, such as fun learning activities or even playing with educational toys.

The results among younger students are just as inspiring as they are among older students. While visiting anther school, I walked around a kindergarten classroom room asking students what they were working on. All of them showed enthusiasm for sharing the details of their projects, but one young girl’s answer stood out. “I’m innovating!” she declared.

This is the confidence students need, and that we must engender. Starting early, making learning relevant, applying learning and teaching collaboration are essential to helping students prepare for their future – regardless of which career they eventually choose.

Bertram is president and CEO of Project Lead The Way and the New York Times bestselling author of “One Nation Under Taught: Solving America’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Crisis.”

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