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Not All Hands-on Learning is created Equal

Updated: Aug 19, 2021

To be impactful, Project-based STEM learning experiences must be emotionally engaging and tell kids they belong in science

Last spring, we started bringing our chain reaction toys to a local school to run Friday inventor workshops. Jonah, a fifth grader, started the afternoon disengaged, refusing to sit for assembly.

A few hours into the workshop, though, he was so immersed and so excited about the machine he was building that he made his mom park and come inside to see his creation. His face lit up with pride as he explained his invention to her.

A year and a pandemic later, Jonah still asks when we’re coming back.

Jonah’s experience that afternoon was less about the physical toys and more about the emotional experience they enabled. He felt like he had something unique to contribute, and that feeling of belonging made him less afraid of getting the answer wrong. He was emotionally engaged, on a physiological level, because he had multiple opportunities to fail and try again. And, embedded within that experience, were reminders that he was doing science: “I invented this!” he told his mom.

Creating educational experiences like this impacts students long-term, increases their motivation to learn, and is one of the most effective ways to close the diversity gap in STEM.

Cultivate Belonging

Belonging happens on two levels: in the classroom and in the subject area. School asks students to get things wrong in front of 30 other children, over and over, on a daily basis — all during a time of deeply complicated, puberty-riddled social dynamics — and getting things wrong is terrifying. A third of middle school girls feel unsupported by their classmates and uncomfortable asking questions. They feel like they are the only ones who don’t understand the material, despite the fact that on average they outperform boys in STEM classes. As long as this is the case, their learning will be hindered.

Putting questions into contexts where students feel knowledgeable empowers them to risk offering up an answer. For Jonah, this meant noticing his Raiders jersey and using a football analogy to explain a mechanics concept. At first when I asked what we needed to change in our invention, he was too nervous to risk an answer. But once I framed the question in terms of taking down the defensive line, he knew we needed an offensive lineman (a big, heavy domino) when we had a kicker (a little domino) on the field. The next time something went wrong, Jonah felt more comfortable answering, using an analogy of his own to explain his thinking.

We challenged another student in the class, who loved to draw comics but was hesitant to build anything, to translate her latest sci-fi comic battle into a chain reaction machine on the whiteboard. Allowing students to use their areas of expertise as frameworks in which to understand new concepts creates the safety and belonging necessary to engage in the often vulnerable process of learning.

Connect the Dots

Helping students see how their interests and strengths make them better at a project not only carves out space for them to practice risk-taking for the sake of classroom learning, but it also helps them feel like they belong in the field they’re studying. Subtle messages, like the examples we use and analogies we provide, add up to communicate to students whether or not they belong in STEM.

Growing up, my vision of a scientist was a nerdy man who reads manuals cover-to-cover, the type of student who never asks questions or takes notes. 50 years of Draw a Scientist experiments confirm that I’m not alone in this perception--80% draw a male. Despite the fact that 91 percent of girls describe themselves as creative, most don’t see STEM as creative. Kids and young adults are looking for places they belong. If we leave them with a vision of a scientist that doesn’t match their self-perception, they’ll count themselves out of the field.

Connecting different personalities and strengths to STEM aptitude isn’t just a trick to diversify STEM, it actually aligns with the broader paradigm shift the world needs. As computers solve more and more problems, our uniquely human skills are more important than ever, especially in STEM fields. We conflate a certain personality with STEM aptitude, but students that have a growth mindset, that value creativity and questions, and that know how to collaborate will be better prepared to tackle a rapidly changing world full of exponentially growing problems.

Make it Exciting

Cultivating an environment where students can risk failure is a critical foundation, but if a project is boring, it’s not going to move the needle on their motivation or on the STEM gap.

Our brains are reshaping themselves on a moment-to-moment basis as new tiny branches, called dendrites, grow and stretch in response to the electrical inputs of thoughts and ideas. A memory is a constellation of neurons that fire together to recall an event--stronger memories are more sensitive or more complex in proportion to the event they encode. When teaching includes multiple touchpoints, like a story, or emotional components, like failure, reflection, and celebration, it makes learning easier because it creates a stronger memory.

As Dr. Hedman’s research at MIT indicates, kids get more excited and more engaged each time they offer an answer, but when they finally get the right answer after multiple tries, there’s a huge spike in emotional engagement. This is the type of strong engagement that leads to the formation of a strong, positive memory--the type that kept Jonah asking when we were coming back a year later.

The Bigger Picture

While impactful educational experiences are important for all students, they are especially important for those who are historically underrepresented in STEM fields. For students like Jonah and students like me, impactful educational experiences can be the difference between never even considering science and seeing STEM as an option.

As Youki Terada frames it: focusing on isolated problem-solving instead of real-world application, valuing independent work over collaborative projects, and promoting competition and speed at the expense of open-ended inquiry and iteration are features of a paradigm of science education that “pushes marginalized groups to the margins.” Building failure and iteration into hands-on learning not only keeps kids engaged, but also teaches a growth mindset, which can temper the effects of poverty on academic achievement and give girls and other marginalized groups the resilience they need to feel supported in STEM fields.

In a public school landscape fueled by state standards and testing, devoting time to hands-on learning can feel like a luxury. But to the administrators and decision-makers who have the power to invest in it or not, I pose this story as an invitation.

More worksheets aren’t going to motivate a student who is behind. Instead, they need to have a different emotional experience at school. Bringing hands-on learning into the classroom can build motivation and shift self-perception, opening the door to new possibilities, new fields, and new futures.

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