What is STEM education? Teaching in physical and online classrooms

October 4, 2017
Michigan Technological University
Everyone needs a good teacher -- including teachers. Two new studies show how digging deeper into what STEM education means and strategically designing online classrooms can enhance teaching science, technology, engineering, and math.
STEM is shorthand for science, technology, engineering, and math. But in K-12 classrooms it's more than an acronym.
Teaching STEM in physical and online classrooms is the focus on two new papers in the Journal of Science Teacher Education and the Journal of Technology and Teacher Education. Both pull back the curtain on STEM education to show that there's more to the art of teaching than science. Especially as school districts look at implementing Next Generation Science Standards, and researchers are encouraged to do more outreach for broader impact, a better understanding of the mental models of STEM ed and the value of designing an online classroom can be useful.
Similar to the broad terms "21st-century skills" or "hands-on learning," which encompass a lot but are hard to pin down exactly, the meaning of STEM education hasn't been clarified for K-12 teachers. New research shows that teachers use eight mental models to construct STEM-based lesson plans.
The data was gathered and analyzed by a team led by Michigan Technological University and the STEM Education Center at the University of Minnesota asked for feedback from nearly 40 teachers in a three-week professional development program about STEM education. The program is part of EngrTEAMS (Engineering to Transform the Education of Analysis, Measurement, and Science), funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). In the workshop, cognitive and learning sciences researcher Emily Dare from Michigan Techand her team had the participants draw a model each week to show how they teach STEM in their classrooms.
Using content analysis techniques, the team gleaned repeated images and words from the teachers' drawings. They boiled down to eight basic models.
  • STEM is an acronym, a superficial list of topics
  • STEM is made up of separate disciplines
  • Science is context -- other fields contribute to science
  • Engineering is context -- application and building is most important
  • STEM is an approximation for the engineering design process, which science, tech and math are part of
  • Real-world problem solving is the heart of STEM education; it best prepares students for college and careers
  • Science and engineering design are used equally -- one can't happen without the other
  • Integrated STEM where all the fields connect in complex relationships; this is the most nuanced of the models
Online Classrooms
Everyone needs a good teacher -- including teachers. Providing support for teacher learning shifts how participants chat in digital classrooms. A new study shows how the patterns of online communication change by implementing teacher leadership techniques, which opens possibilities for better online classroom design.
In working with a group of 34 early career teachers, cognitive and learning sciences researcher Joshua Ellis from Michigan Tech and his co-authors asked participants to use role-play in their online discussions to deepen the feedback between group members. The team noted the comments delved into more specific and constructive suggestions. Something else changed, too; the patterns of communication changed shape.
"The conversation got less organic when everyone started taking on roles," Ellis says, adding that the shape changed from a "messy map" with lots of interactions between all the participants. "It got into a hub and spoke arrangement instead, which at first I thought it might be a negative side effect, but what it really shows is a more centralized, targeted conversation."
Alongside the diagrams, the team ran qualitative analyses of the content of the conversations and they used a rubric to determine how reflective, technical and pedagogical the forum comments were.
Story Source:
Materials provided by Michigan Technological UniversityNote: Content may be edited for style and length.

Journal Reference:
  1. Elizabeth A. Ring et al. The Evolution of Teacher Conceptions of STEM Education Throughout an Intensive Professional Development ExperienceJournal of Science Teacher Education, 2017 DOI: 10.1080/1046560X.2017.1356671

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Michigan Technological University. "What is STEM education? Teaching in physical and online classrooms." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 4 October 2017. <>.