Growing STEM Innovators: A Love Story

By Erik W. Robelen — March 07, 2013 6 min read
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Design. Make. Play. These activities are at the heart of a new book that explores ways of getting young people hooked on STEM learning. Readers take a trip to the Tinkering Studio at San Francisco’s Exploratorium museum; Maker Faires, the Ultimate Block Party in New York City, and a warehouse space dubbed a Maker Palace for Educators, among other places.

“Part of what this book is all about is how do we engage kids in STEM learning in a way that makes them passionate and makes them fall in love,” Margaret Honey, the president and CEO of the New York Hall of Science, told me in a recent interview.

Honey teamed up with her colleague David Kanter at the New York City museum to assemble and edit the collection of essays, being published this month by Routledge.

“Each and every one of the chapters is illustrative of how this work is being done to support kids’ deep enthusiasm and excitement,” she said. “As I think about the techniques associated with this design-make-play triad, it’s about opening up possibilities for how we teach STEM and creating points of entry that enable science and technology work, or STEM work, to be personally relevant or meaningful.”

The book, Design, Make, Play: Growing the Next Generation of STEM Innovators, is intended to serve as a resource for policymakers, practitioners, researchers, and program developers, the authors say. The new book comes at a time when interest in improving STEM education, and getting more young people engaged in the STEM disciplines, is at a fever pitch. In fact, President Obama singled out STEM education and its importance to jobs and the economy in his recent State of the Union address.

Honey and Kanter give a prominent nod in their book to the work of a National Research Council panel that developed the “Framework for K-12 Science Education,” which is guiding the development of the common standards for science being crafted through a partnership involving 26 states, and now nearing completion.

“The framework charts a new and important pathway for science learning by recognizing that science content learning must be intimately coupled with the practices of doing science and engineering, and must build students’ understandings and appreciation of the scientific enterprise over multiple years,” they write in an introduction to the book.

Here’s a flavor for what the chapters explore:

• “The Maker Mindset” explains the growing “maker” movement around the country, which brings together people with a shared passion for tinkering, creating, and reusing materials and technology. “Makers give it a try; they take things apart; and they try to do things that even the manufacturer did not think of doing,” writes Dale Dougherty, the founder and editor of Make magazine and cofounder of Maker Faires around the country. (The Maker Faire website describes these as family-friendly festivals of invention, creativity and resourcefulness, and a celebration of the Maker movement.) And Dougherty hopes to bring this approach into schools. The idea he is pursuing is to create a space in schools where kids have the opportunity to “make,” with enough tools, materials, and expertise to get them started. “These places, called makerspaces, share some aspects of the shop class, home economics class, the art studio, and science labs.”

• Helen Quinn and Phillip Bell, two members of the NRC panel that wrote the science framework, explore how designing, making, and playing relate to the learning goals of K-12 science education as spelled out in the NRC framework. They note that the framework envisions a fundamental rethinking of K-12 science education, and of “classroom culture,” to foster a culture of “student participation in discourse and activities that require group problem-solving, investigation, explanation, and argumentation.” And they note later, one aspect of the change in classrooms is that students would experience more design-make-play-related activity in the context of their science classrooms.”

• In NYSci Design Lab: No Bored Kids!, Dorothy Bennett and Peggy Monahan describe their work on this project at the New York Hall of Science, which “aims to deeply engage all types of science learners in solving personally motivating problems via a creative design process.” They acknowledge that the design process may not be “an efficient way to teach specific STEM content. It is, however, a powerful way to kindle a desire to learn that content. The strength of design-based activities is that, when done well, they are highly motivating and multidisciplinary.” What I found especially fascinating in this chapter was when the authors describe how Design Lab activities have been continually tweaked and refined to maximize student engagement and learning.

• In “It Looks Like Fun, But Are They Learning?” museum educators from the Exploratorium describe the Tinkering Studio, a dedicated “making” space at the facility, which is thematically organized around a set of materials or phenomena that change regularly. “Part exhibition space, part science laboratory, and part atelier, the Tinkering Studio is a new kind of public learning experience,” they write, noting that they witness in the studio “amazing focus, creativity, persistence, and pride developing” in visitors who give it a try.

• In “The Ultimate Block Party: Bridging the Science of Learning and the Importance of Play,” several researchers describe the first such party, held in New York City’s Central Park, where more than 50,000 people came together for a “celebration of the impact of play on development. The activities included a Lego Extravaganza, a Skyscraper Challenge that included a variety of materials families could use to construct a tower, and a game of hide-and-go-seek using GPS.

• In the final chapter, principal Steven Zipkes describes the school he leads, Manor New Technology High School in Manor, Texas. (Last year, Zipkes joined me for an Education Week webinar exploring the new generation of STEM-focused schools.) The school, he explains, uses project-based learning as its primary mode of instruction across disciplines. This, he said, “encourages students to learn the way most people do outside of a typical classroom—through collaboration, critical thinking, communication, and research, not in isolation at a desk by themselves.” The school also employs a trimester approach and requires students to take the equivalent of five years of math, six years of science, and two years of engineering, all within the span of four years of high school.

Honey told me that her own personal experience with science growing up has helped shape her outlook on how to transform learning in science and the STEM disciplines more broadly.

“I was one of those young people who got turned off to science fairly early on because it was represented to me as a domain that consisted of facts that you had to memorize,” she said, “and I was never particularly good at that work. And that, of course, is the last thing that science is.” (Full disclosure: I count myself as being in the same camp of finding little connection to science when I was in school.)

In their introduction, Honey and Kanter make clear that they’ve got an ambitious agenda for transforming education.

“The stories featured here stand in sharp contrast to what we know about science education today in our nation’s schools, how it is delivered by teachers and texts, and how it is received by students,” they write. "[W]hen science is given time during the school week, students are much more likely to be memorizing information presented in textbooks and answering questions at the end of the chapter than engaging in the kind of real-world problem-solving that is building young people’s passions for science learning. The future can—and must—be different.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.