STEM Challenges: The Importance of Prior Knowledge and Continued Learning

Sorry for the delay in blog posts!   I’ve been pretty busy lately! Anyways…

If you search “STEM Challenges” on Twitter, Youtube, Teachers Pay Teachers, and Pinterest, you will see some of the most exciting and engaging looking activities.

I was presenting at a STEM conference three years ago (not sure why this hit me now. I should have blogged about it way sooner, LOL).   I was excited to attend a session that focused on “Learning through STEM Challenges.” Initially, I thought the presenter would speak on how STEM Challenges promote long-lasting/durable learning in the brain, or at least the impact of STEM Challenges on learning and/or the brain. Instead, when we walked into the room, we had a plethora of materials/supplies at our tables and the presenter walked the audience through the completion of two STEM Challenges. After we completed the challenges, the presenter concluded the session (not for lack of time, but because that was the end of the lesson).

While on Twitter, Youtube, Teachers Pay Teachers, and Pinterest, I started noticing a similar trend in classrooms. Multiple videos I saw showed teachers and their classes engaging in STEM Challenges. Much like my experience as a participant at the conference, the students would walk into their classroom to find supplies and an engaging invitation for them to solve some type of challenge.  Then, after building the tower or constructing the roller coaster, the lesson would culminate.

I saw one video where the teacher showed a compelling clip from the movie Apollo 11, where the astronauts were forced to adapt to a life or death situation and solve the dilemma with only materials found on board. Though inspiring, I thought using the video in this way was somewhat misleading. Like I said, it’s compelling. But, it’s essential to remember that those highly trained astronauts have years upon years of prior knowledge to pull from when they solved their dilemma. They all thoroughly understood the concepts and underpinnings (physics, math, engineering, etc.) behind the dilemma.

Don’t get me wrong… The movie clip was inspiring and the challenges were fun, exciting, engaging, and encouraged participants to work together. The supplies were neatly organized. The presenter and the teachers are always amazingly prepared and dynamic.

Yet, this got me thinking. With STEM Challenges, is the focus more on the engaging activity, rather than the actual learning? Often times with STEM Challenges, the engaging activity can overshadow the actual learning that should be occurring or the actual concepts that should be taught. Remember, with STEM Challenges, it’s important to first leverage students’ prior knowledge (KWL, anticipatory set, etc). Then, it’s also essential to expand upon the concepts within the challenge. For instance, a popular challenge has students build towers with sticky notes. During the challenge, it’s vital to address the various math and engineering concepts at play. What is more, to create long-lasting, durable learning, it’s important to revisit the challenge and the concepts after some time has passed.

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