Quick Fixes and STEM

How to avoid the ‘quick fix’ approach to STEM education

There is a belief among some students that all knowledge can be located somewhere on the internet. When faced with a new topic to research, they proceed directly and effortlessly to Google or Wikipedia to find the minimal amount of information needed to complete their assignments.

This concern probably applies to any field of learning, but in studying science students can miss the essence of what it’s all about if they use this ‘quick fix’ approach. If students don’t have opportunities to find things out for themselves through the practical investigation their study of science will be incomplete.

 

“Science is much more than a body of knowledge. It is a way of thinking. This is central to its success.” Carl Sagan

How can we make sure that the quick fixes offered online don’t displace the slower, more intellectual and curiosity-led research that will inspire and equip our students to become the next generation of scientists?

In other lessons, students are encouraged to use their creativity to produce their own writing, music and art, but this is not common in science lessons.

Open-ended research projects

Too often practical science work in schools is restrained by time and resources, and the ‘recipe’ approach is widespread, where a defined list of procedures is followed to achieve expected results.

Practical, open-ended research projects, where students (and teachers) don’t know the expected outcome in advance is far more valuable in developing students’ conceptual understanding, their motivation to study science and attitudes to science.

While the second approach gives a more authentic and complete learning experience, such projects can be costly, and where adequate facilities or expertise for this aren’t available, citizen science projects can offer a valuable alternative.

Citizen Science

Nowadays there are huge amounts of data being generated from experiments, including the International Space Station and the Large Hadron Collider, that are freely available to schools.

Projects like The Institute for Research in Schools (IRIS) provide the scaffolding for students to access the data and become actively involved in the analysis. We invited their Director, Prof Becky Parker, to present at World ORT’s Hatter seminar in 2017, and we are very excited about the opportunity for your students to join one of their projects free of charge.

IRIS Projects include:

  • Collaborating with the Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling (CPOM) who use satellites to monitor the process of how and when Antarctic icebergs are formed, to better understand changing environmental conditions within the region.
  • Helping to identify all the 15,000 genes in the human whipworm genome using a process known as annotation. The whipworm is a parasite that causes Trichuriasis, a tropical disease that affects millions of children and locks their communities into a relentless cycle of poverty. Studying the whipworm DNA can help scientists to find new ways of treating and preventing this disease.

The Institute for Research in Schools (IRIS) website is here: http://www.researchinschools.org/

Another Citizen Science resource with a wider range of research projects but not aimed specifically at school is Zooniverse: https://www.zooniverse.org/