We are on the cusp of a sea change in STEM education. The adoption of active learning approaches is accelerating, and 20 years from now we may well view this era as a turning point. Those institutions focusing on STEM who are not already moving in this direction must catch the rising tide or risk being cast adrift. To put it simply – if you are not engaged in active learning, you should be.
The concept of active learning is not new, and its advocates have long extolled the value of experiential approaches to teaching and learning. The catch phrases may have changed – hands-on now includes “minds-on,” and experiment has evolved into empowerment – but the core concept has remained true: when it comes to learning, there is greater value in learning by doing. It is not enough for students to merely know the “how” (i.e., how to solve a partial differential equation), but what is more important is the “why” (why is this equation needed, and when is it applicable). This is where innovative techniques such as problem driven learning come into play. Solving the problems we are facing, and the ones we cannot even imagine, takes critical thinkers. The correlation between active learning and critical thinking cannot be denied.
STEM classrooms have become ideal laboratories for developing approaches to active learning. A few factors account for this. The retirement of baby-boom schoolteachers, college faculty, and administrators is reducing the ranks of educators who have been most partial to traditional methods of lecture. At the same time, breakthroughs in technology are introducing new tools and mechanisms for delivery. The most important factor, though, is the students. The kids who grew up using computers have graduated college; behind them (as witnessed on YouTube), are babies swiping the pages of printed magazines, mistaking them for tablet computers.
This convergence of trends has provided impetus to the notion that now is the time for teaching to change. Although the foundations of theoretical knowledge are as essential as ever, millennial “digital natives” hunger for relevance and interaction. Today’s professor must therefore be more guide than guru. Since information itself is ubiquitous; the challenge is not to collect and transmit it, but instead to organize, evaluate, apply, and test it. As a result, STEM pedagogy is increasingly embracing student-centered groups engaged in project-based work using real-world scenarios.
At Stanford, the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design offers courses that focus on projects developed with industry partners. Multidisciplinary teams often focus on coming up with devices and innovations to satisfy real-world needs. UC-Berkeley has acknowledged that there is something more pressing than online learning for engineering students – the need to offer immersion in experiential design. Their new Jacobs Institute for Design Innovation will help students pick up tools and techniques to design and make working models in an integrative experience.
Georgia Tech has also led in this area– from both a curricular and co-curricular point of view. We have done so by revising curricula, introducing new pedagogical approaches, and creating new spaces for students to explore, all for the purpose of tapping the imagination and enterprising nature of our students.
We have pioneered the use of problem based learning – a student-focused approach in which the students learn by direct experience (with minimal lecturing) – as an introductory approach for students in newer fields like biomedical engineering. Further, we have developed a Vertically Integrated Projects (VIP) program in which cross-disciplinary teams of students – from sophomores to PhD students – function like design teams in industry and work on projects that can last several years in duration.
In both VIP and the capstone design experience, student teams acquire and fabricate hardware to create working prototype inventions, just as they would in a company. Beyond building something real, they learn about managing group dynamics, meeting project schedules, and providing weekly deliverables.
Such innovative approaches are difficult to implement in a traditional classroom environment. Consider the Invention Studio, our on-campus “skunk works” that is run entirely by students and facilitates the so-called “maker” movement. The Invention Studio is dedicated physical area outfitted with tools and technology that students could never access on their own. In its first days in 2009, the studio was a single room with 10 students. Today, more than 500 students a month avail themselves of the technology in the studio’s five rooms. One student is building a 50-kilogram satellite. Another is working on a particle accelerator. Still another is fashioning an experimental aircraft.
As one student put it, “We’re teaching ourselves and teaching each other.”
Similarly, Purdue’s i2i Learning Laboratory is an experiential, collaborative, reconfigurable learning environment aimed at first-year engineers and takes students through each stage of the design cycle. The physical space includes floor-to-ceiling “wall-talkers,” essentially whiteboard wallpaper, cover three walls allowing students easy proximity and ample room for writing and sketching as they create solutions to problems. This hands-on learning encourages students to think outside the proverbial box.
While space and structure are critical to unleashing student creativity and even inspiring entrepreneurship, the promise of reward is also a powerful motivator. At Georgia Tech, this is where the InVenture Prize competition comes in.
Led by faculty and judged by a panel of experts and affectionately referred to as “American Idol for Geeks,” the InVenture Prize competition draws both individuals and teams of students seeking to win fame and fortune for their inventions. Hundreds of entrants are winnowed down to six finalists – all of whom showcase their innovation on live public television. Both the first and second-place winners receive a free U.S. patent filing, as well as a cash prize ($20,000 for the top finisher). The winner even graduates to Georgia Tech’s startup accelerator program.
Of course, such a competition underscores the monetary benefit of entrepreneurship. But in the context of learning, the concept is about much more than money. Whether in high school or college, students value freedom and independence. They relish the opportunity to explore and try new things. Framing the lessons of STEM in the free-market spirit that has defined our nation connects the classroom to the larger world.
Entrepreneurship also means something is at stake. It assigns a different kind of reward – and consequence – to student work. What we are doing is empowering students and researchers to be interdependent learners who are fearless in the face of complex problems. That may be just what STEM education needs most.