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Helping Students Learn Problem Solving Skills Via STEM Education

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Well-trained teachers know how to design STEM projects that encourage students to not only learn problem-solving in the classroom but also examine real-world situations that require specialized solutions.

Here are five potential projects that can help STEM students further develop their problem-solving skills:

1. Activities in Class

EVERFI, Inc. encourages educators to teach failure in their classrooms. As shocking as that sounds, experiential classrooms for STEM problem-solving need to prepare students to iterate toward success, which could mean failure the first few times. This is easier said than done, but the EVERFI website provides simple ideas to get students comfortable with “failure” in the name of discovery.

EVERFI suggests refocusing attention to how students arrive at their solutions instead of which solutions they present to take the focus away from constantly seeking the ‘right’ answer. It goes on to remind educators that “STEM classroom activities are the perfect spaces to challenge students with failures and promote a culture of experimentation … it encourages our students to get comfortable with failure and is an important step in cultivating new STEM leaders.”

2. Let’s Go to Mars!

In this surreal yet real-life scenario, high school students who have mastered algebra can use mathematical “computations to determine the relative positions of Earth and Mars during which an optimal transfer of a spacecraft can occur… and combine this information with planetary position data to determine the next launch opportunity to Mars.”

The California Institute of Technology has created a website to walk secondary teachers through this lesson. Students are even encouraged to extend this activity by asking if a spacecraft must be “launched at an exact moment in the launch window or what happens if it is launched early or late?”

3. Urban Renewal

Students can personally “restore and improve urban infrastructure by dealing with problems like storm water runoff, wildlife habitat improvement, aesthetic landscapes, and permeable pavements.” MiddleWeb provides resources for middle school teachers, with lessons that force students to seek out solutions instead of memorizing correct answers.

Ms. Anne Jolly, a teacher from Alabama, wrote in a newsletter for the U.S. Department of Education that her students helped construct a wetland to resolve the environmental problems they were experiencing, and “these students finally experienced success … they learned science concepts and saw a reason for knowing these things … they applied math that previously had had no meaning for them.”

4. Middle School Students and Solar Energy

The National Academy of Engineering offers design challenges that can be useful as hands-on projects or even as topics for Socratic seminars or debates. These projects support a student-led classroom. Students in middle school can extend STEM thinking by identifying ways to make solar power more affordable. In Make Solar Energy Economical, the NAE offers ideas to spark brainstorming for STEM-related debates. A philosophical approach to STEM decisions and advancements is interdisciplinary and provides additional rigor.

5. The Dirty Water Project

This project expects students from third to fifth grades to be able to “design, build and test their own water filters.” Resilient Educator provides content for teachers to discover the difference between teaching a lesson and enabling students to discover a lesson. There are links to several real-world challenges. There is a differentiation plan, and students work together “to make existing water treatment systems better, and to develop new water treatment systems.”

The U.S. Department of Education supports the need for a strong methodological foundation in primary and secondary schools so that districts and private institutions can mitigate future attrition rates for their students. As such, the Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grant provides financial support to teachers who undertake a TEACH Grant-eligible program of study.

SOU’s Master of Science in Education with a Concentration in Curriculum and Instruction in STEM Education online program is TEACH Grant-eligible. Completing program coursework enables educators to pick up strategies and methods that will help them navigate STEM education with ease. They’ll learn how to facilitate project-based learning and kindle a spirit of scientific inquiry in their students, among other things.  

Learn more about Southern Oregon University’s online Master of Science in Education with a Concentration in Curriculum and Instruction in STEM Education program.

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