Global STEM States Include Experiential Learning at STEMFest 2015

When we tell people that we bicycled with 120 school children in Saskatoon, finishing at the international STEMFest with a...

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When we tell people that we bicycled with 120 school children in Saskatoon, finishing at the international STEMFest with a talk about an around-the-world bicycle adventure – people wonder what does cycling and adventure have to do with STEM education?

Everything.

100% of Saskatoon teachers responded that the bicycle adventure, Ride To Learn, demonstrated applied STEM in education and would likely increase student engagement. Teachers remarked it: “brought change to a way of thinking,” “is an excellent way to engage students,” and simply “motivational.”

STEM subjects are fun, why shouldn’t the learning about them be too. Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics together are greater than each subject in isolation. They do not exist in isolation in the real world or the workforce, therefore need to be taught as an interdisciplinary approach, incorporating the real-world in today’s teaching and learning.

Science is basically the pursuit of knowledge, not the attainment or knowledge itself. As information becomes ubiquitous, teaching and learning has shifted, and will continue to, to remain relevant; education now is about how to strategically curate and creatively use knowledge to engineer new thinking.

The world needs thinkers. Thinkers that can engage across borders of STEM subject areas, who can learn, innovate, and solve problems. How can classroom learning be designed to foster STEM learning, natural curiosity, innovation, and critical thinking capabilities?

Real-world adventure, student autonomy, and experiential learning approaches are good places to start. The STEM States Organisation include these aspects with real-time activities, such as Ride To Learn, at the annual STEMFest conference to role-model this shift occurring in classroom teaching and learning.

“Give the pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking; learning naturally results.” – John Dewey 

Ride To Learn is an Adventure Learning approach that is fun and engaging, as students are initially curious about about our adventure (cycling around the world), however, once students realise that they will be working on meaningful projects that have a real-world impact, the motivation to learn becomes intrinsic and deeply engaging. Students below in Casablanca check out my completely sustainable bike. 

Adventure Learning (AL) is a pedagogy developed in the early 1990s and coined in 2006 by Aaron Doering of the Learning Technology Media Lab. The AL approach makes use of technology and educational activities in conjunction with the authentic experiences of researchers in the field. While we are cycling, we are engaging with students and classrooms in real time through conferencing tools, online learning platforms, and social media. While we cycled we explored the origins of t-shirts and shoes as both objects are an accessible and engaging point of inquiry into the environmental and social impacts of production. The cotton plant, for example, is a fascinating entry point into a myriad of STEM learning. 

We visited farms, factories and designers to understand the entire production of these items and in the process our education team developed curricula exploring progressive agriculture, renewable energy, bio-mimicking, cradle to cradle design and restorative enterprise, among many other concepts focusing toward a sustainable future. In Australia, the program additionally aligned with the curriculum cross curriculum priorities and capabilities.

Watch this short video in Sydney to learn more.

Use of experiential pedagogy place students as agents of change, driving their learning with teachers as learning facilitators guiding the process. There are a number of different experiential approaches, AL being one, as the students with Ride To Learn were encouraged to collaboratively design projects based on their vicarious experiences and learning through involvement in the program. Project and Problem Based Learning are also popular approaches, but my current favourite that really makes STEM education come alive is Challenge Based Learning (CBL).

CBL is a collaborative multidisciplinary approach that can meet STEM industry needs. Students naturally weave together and communicate their understanding of STEM subjects as they explore real-world problems and the concepts become more tangible and relevant to their daily lives. Students must use technology, collect and analyse data,  develop connections in mathematics, and publish their findings. With real-world connected learning student motivation and achievement is improved creating a life-long learning pathway in STEM.

In a pilot using the CBL approach at Duffy Primary School the students initially did not know how to ask questions, share their ideas, or how to work as a team. They had been recipients of content, not engaged in or creators of content and in charge of their learning. Once they realised they could work on a project that actually made a difference, school transformed into a place they could not wait to get to. They started to imagine things to make the world a better place (words of one of the students). The school principal, teaching team, and parents remarked that student engagement was at an all time high and in reviewing the curriculum standards, students had met and exceeded all of the term’s requirements. See short video below as the students discuss their Food Sustainability projects. 

This is the future of education.

If we want to align STEM education to future human resource needs with out knowing what those needs will be, let’s engage in learning that relates to and solves challenges in current industries. Real world, hands-on, experiential learning in classrooms today to cultivate the thinkers and agile leaders required for the STEM fields of tomorrow. And while we are at it, let’s have some fun. 

Many thanks to Susan Bloom, Director of Research Services and Ethics at the University of Saskatchewan and to Scott Campbell, Executive Director for organising and looking after us in Saskatoon, Canada. We look forward to engaging in the next STEMFest!

Photo with Scott Campbell and my daughter who participated in the conference too.