The STEM Challenge Conundrum: Learning and Making Meaning Through Interactive STEM Challenges

DISCLAIMER: I LOVE STEM! I was a cofounder of a STEM school. I spent summers developing integrated project-based learning (PBL) curricula for the school. I procured computer coding and Project Lead the Way engineering curricula for those students. My doctoral dissertation focused on STEM (specifically, challenges facing upper level female undergraduate engineering students). I LOVE STEM!

All that said, I can’t help but be somewhat critical of the “STEM Challenge” craze currently gripping schools throughout the nation. I’ve observed this craze all over Pinterest, Teachers-Pay-Teachers, and at teacher stores like Lakeshore Learning. Again, don’t get me wrong. I’m sure STEM challenges garner high levels of student engagement. It seems STEM challenges also really pique student interest. Yet, that’s not what concerns me regarding STEM challenges. I’m focused on the actual learning that occurs while students engage in STEM challenges (currently, I can’t find any research on this. Maybe it’s still too new).

I once participated in a STEM challenge a teacher was conducting with her students in her classroom. She distributed the directions, gave the students a bunch of supplies, and then told them to accomplish the task clearly delineated in the directions. Like I said, as I watched and participated, there was no denying the high levels of engagement and interest. Later that year, I was presenting at the International STEM Education Association Conference in Branson, Missouri, and I sat in on another STEM challenge presentation. This teacher did THE SAME EXACT THING. Obviously, two teachers (out of the millions who probably conduct STEM challenges with their students) who conduct STEM challenges the same exact way is NOT generalizable. However, that got me thinking… What learning (if any) is actually occurring during these STEM challenges?

Applying what I know of cognitive psychology and cognitive load theory (which, admittedly isn’t a lot), I’m attempting to better understand and articulate how students learn (or don’t learn) during STEM challenges. First, let’s briefly discuss a basic premise of cognitive psychology. Knowledge is stored in long-term memory (LTM) and new information is processed in short-term memory (STM). When considering learning and problem solving, for people who have the necessary information stored in LTM, it’s easier for them to bring that information into STM and manipulate it to make sense of newly received information.

Cognitive load theory suggests that our working memory capacity has inherent limits. Many cognitive researchers posit that our STM can only hold seven plus or minus two units of information at a time (some people can hold and manipulate up to nine units of information while others can only hold and manipulate up to five units of information in STM). When excessive cognitive load exists, it creates error or some kind of interference. So, for people who don’t have the necessary information stored in LTM, asking them to manipulate a variety of supplies and simultaneously learn new content and concepts may be excessive cognitive load (i.e. STEM challenges).

This may then suggest that students, depending on the capacity of their STM and how much knowledge they have stored in LTM, would only have space to possibly manipulate some of the supplies, rather than also learn the new content and concepts associated with a STEM challenge.

I always refer to this in my integrated PBL presentations and when talking about other constructivist approaches to learning as well. If students don’t have the necessary information already stored in LTM, and they’re being provided with too many units of information during a STEM challenge (being given a variety of supplies, being asked to learn new content, and being asked to understand new concepts), they may be experiencing cognitive load which could be hampering their learning.

I’ve heard from some teachers that they like to engage in a KWL or anticipatory set in order to gauge prior knowledge before starting a STEM challenge. I think this is definitely a good way to start a STEM challenge. However, I’m very interested in empirical research about learning using STEM challenges. Know any? Please share!

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