Seeing STEM Learning in Action

“When you’re riding a bicycle, what keeps you from falling off?”

That’s the question I was asked last week as I was standing outside a Rhode Island College classroom with two bicycle wheels (one large, one small) at my feet. I was participating in an activity led by “Everyday Explorers”—AmeriCorps members who teach STEM in after-school programs in Boston, New York, and Providence—as part of a two-day forum CBASS hosted on informal science education.

Florida Afterschool Network COO Joe Davis and the author test out principles of angular momentum.

Florida Afterschool Network COO Joe Davis and the author test out principles of angular momentum.

In case you’re wondering, the answer (mostly) is angular momentum. The Everyday Explorers demonstrated this principle as part of a broader lesson on Newton’s three laws. Activities included trying to change the direction of a spinning bicycle wheel and being spun around in a chair while holding bricks in outstretched arms—not exactly your typical science “lesson.”

This type of exercise was at the heart of the forum, held at the Rhode Island College STEM Center and Providence After School Alliance. The meeting was part of a national CBASS initiative, supported by the Noyce Foundation, to increase after-school staff members’ interest and confidence in teaching STEM and to engage city leaders in supporting STEM education after school. (Check out our FUSE resource guide for more information.)

One key theme of the conference that was on display during the Explorers’ activity was teaching STEM though co-inquiry—the process of jointly asking (and answering) questions. Co-inquiry gets students to start thinking scientifically—to make observations, ask questions, and formulate and test hypotheses—and, consequently, to start seeing themselves as scientists.

I saw more examples of this process later in the day when I visited Nathan Bishop Middle School , where students were comparing a live owl and falcon, building remote-controlled underwater robots, and designing sound, like the whoosh of wind, for audio stories. These students weren’t just being told about science; they were actively doing it with peers and role models.

As STEM becomes more and more important to our workforce, exposing kids to positive, hands-on STEM experiences early on—inside and outside of school—is essential to spurring their future interest in related careers. Another goal of the FUSE forum was to discuss approaches for expanding STEM instruction after school. These include creating partnerships between intermediaries, schools, and/or city governments to build expanded learning programs that incorporate STEM; linking universities and after-school programs to meet program staffing needs and train future teachers; conducting coaching and quality assessment to drive program improvement; and advocating for local, state and federal policies to direct funding to STEM.

If we are going to get today’s youth excited about STEM, we need quality instruction and quality systems—both the bicycle wheel and the roadmap.

This post originally appeared in the ExpandED Exchange.

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