All are widely recognized curricula exemplars in engineering; but do they fit the trans-disciplinary definition of STEM curriculum? There is little doubt these curricula are exemplary in promoting the “T and E” (technology and engineering) in STEM, but do they promote the “S and M” (science and math) as well?
To answer this, consider two examples. Quoting from the introduction to the EiE materials, “These materials (EiE) are not an independent curriculum. Rather, it (EiE) is integrated with science; the lessons assume that the students are studying or have already studied the science concepts that are utilized in the engineering lessons. The EiE curriculum does not explicitly teach science topics; although science content may be referred to or reviewed (Engineering is Elementary, 2005).” No reference is made to mathematics in the EiE curriculum. In the Invention, Innovation, and Inquiry curricula, reference is made to integrating the engineering and technology content with appropriate science and mathematics content; however, no science or mathematics content is listed or specified.
None of these curricula fit our definition of trans-disciplinary. What is needed is a curriculum that teaches not only the science and mathematics contained within national and state standards, but also the technology and engineering as detailed in ISTE and ITEA standards. This would make the curriculum truly trans-disciplinary.
What then should be the form of a STEM curriculum that is driven by NRC, NCTM, ISTE, and ITEA standards? What philosophical and theoretical elements should be used to guide the design and development of such a curriculum? What research and field testing support these elements? The following elements should be integral to the design of any STEM curriculum.
Standards driven — All four sets of national standards cited above (NRC, 1996; NCTM, 2000; ISTE, 2007; and ITEA, 2007) are used to backward map the curriculum. The standards represent the Desired Results Stage One of the curriculum design process known as Understanding by Design. “By building on the best of current practice, standards aim to take us beyond the constraints of present structures of schooling toward a shared vision of excellence.”
Understanding by Design (UbD) — UbD is one of the most widely used and research-supported curriculum design paradigms in use today. Many countries, state departments of education, schools of education at the college and university level, informal education entities, and commercial publishers model their curriculum on the UbD template. The three stages of curriculum development advocated by UbD (i.e., Desired Results, Assessment Evidence, and Learning Plan) represent a rational and logical approach to using standards (Desired Results) to backward map the assessment evidence and learning plan.
“Since Wiggins and McTighe first published Understanding by Design in 1998, their work has steadily increased in popularity as it fills in many of the blanks for educators striving to meet new state and national standards while maintaining their belief in constructivist teaching pedagogy. While UbD is not exclusively a model for constructivists, it lends itself to sound instructional design principles regardless of orientation to teaching and learning. Today the principles of backward design espoused in this landmark work are being implemented in schools around the world as dialogue continues on educational reform in the 21st century (McKenzie, 2002).”
Inquiry-based teaching and learning — All four sets of national standards cited above (NRC, 1996; NCTM, 2000; ISTE, 2007; and ITEA, 2007) advocate the use of inquiry to reform education. Activities within a STEM education curriculum should scaffold from confirmatory, to structured, to guided, and to open inquiry.
It has been hypothesized that students who learn by inquiry-based teaching strategies will show a greater understanding of content and concept acquisition than students learning through expository learning. Examples of an inquiry approach have been documented in studies by Odom (1996), Rutherford (1998) and Brown (1997). Each research study sets out to compare science scores from students involved in expository versus innovative teaching practices. Their research results describe increase science comprehension and achievement and more positive attitudes towards science.
Problem-Based Learning — (PBL) is a student-centered instructional strategy in which students collaboratively answer questions and solve problems and then reflect on their experiences (inquiry). It was pioneered and used extensively at McMaster University, Ontario, Canada. Characteristics of PBL are:
- Learning is driven by challenging, open-ended problems.
- Students work in small collaborative groups.
- Teachers take on the role as “facilitators” of learning.
Research on project-based learning has shown results similar to that of inquiry-based teaching and learning. Diffily (2001) describes how both teachers and students benefit from using project-based learning.
Performance-based teaching and learning – Much evidence has been gathered about how performance-based teaching, learning, and assessing provides the means for improving student achievement. For example, research indicates that teachers in Vermont, Maryland, and Kentucky are asking their students to write more and to do more work together in groups. Such research is providing the empirical information needed to examine the tenets underlying assessment reform efforts.
5E Teaching. Learning, and Assessing Cycle – The 5E cycle (Engagement, Exploration, Explanation, Elaboration, and Evaluation) has been advocated by many curriculum designers and educational researchers as an effective planning and teaching paradigm that leads to improved student performance. Since its introduction in the 1980s, the 5E cycle has been extensively researched, with the results showing enhanced mastery of subject matter, increased ability in developing scientific reasoning, and positive increases in cultivating interest and attitudes about science.
Digital curriculum integrated with digital teaching technologies — STEM education affords an opportunity to deliver curricula to students in non-traditional ways. It is time that high quality digital curricula be developed and be made available to classroom teachers and curriculum designers at the local level. Digital curriculum has many advantages over traditional, analog (paper-based) curriculum. It can be web-based, meaning it can be readily accessible from any Internet-connected computer, can be accessible to people with disabilities, can be readily updated by teachers and/or school districts, and is often more current. In addition, digital teaching technologies such as computers, interactive whiteboards, tablets, student response systems, LCD projectors, digital cameras, and digital microscopes can be used to complement the digital curriculum delivery. A STEM education curriculum should be designed to take full advantage of the digital format.
Formative and summative assessments with both task and non-task specific rubrics — Today’s standards are comprehensive in skills and processes, inquiry, and content; are robust and rich; often have multiple “right” answers; and require performances to assess them. Consequently, traditional modes of using selected response assessments alone are not sufficient to gather evidence of student understanding of these standards. As a result, complementary and alternative forms of assessment have emerged. Alternative assessment means any assessment format that is non-traditional, which requires the student to construct, demonstrate, or perform. With these assessments, tools known as rubrics have gained widespread use in K-16 education.
STEM education will never realize the vision that was expressed in Rising Above the Gathering Storm until several specific actions are taken. STEM education is largely still without well defined form and function. This underlying and unifying theme of function and form must be addressed to guide school restructuring, as well as STEM education program and curriculum development. Most implementations of STEM education in K-12 schools have centered on the “S and M” of STEM, and not the “S, T, E, and M.” Engineering and technology have not received equal attention in this version of STEM education. To implement STEM education and problem-based learning (PBL), engineering as a discipline must be be emphasized, as engineering is one discipline centered on solving problems. Consequently, STEM education curricula should be driven by engaging engineering problems, projects, and challenges, which are embedded within and as culminating activities in the instructional materials. This PBL design allows for the teaching of the underlying and supporting science, mathematics, and technology skills, processes, and concepts, and in turn makes the curriculum trans-disciplinary.
STEM education curricula should be planned and constructed around several non-negotiable design elements. A STEM education curriculum should minimally:
- Be trans-disciplinary in its overall approach;
- Be driven by standards that complement the trans-disciplinary philosophy;
- Use the backward mapping techniques advocated in Understanding by Design;
- Use both problem-based and performance-based teaching and learning;
- Use the 5E teaching and learning cycle to plan units and activities within the curriculum;
- Be digital in format and coupled with digital teaching technologies such as whiteboards, tablets, student response systems, etc.; and
- Use both formative and summative assessments with task and non-task specific rubrics.
These design elements can be blended and molded in the hands of skilled curriculum designers and classroom teachers into world-class curricula necessary to implement and teach STEM education PreK-12. If a STEM education curriculum is built around these elements it will, by its very nature, be student-centered and teacher-friendly, and will serve as a design template for any school district for the development of new and comparable instructional materials. Curriculum design elements, as enumerated above, already have been applied to the development of STEM education products by the author and CurrTech Integrations of Baltimore, Maryland.