By Duygu Erdoğan and Özge Aydemir Kaya, Middle School Science Teachers

Don’t you think “21st century learning” is a great challenge for students as well as their teachers? 

As teachers, we are responsible to equip our students with 21st century skills, which is not an easy goal to achieve. First, we need to internalize these skills and then explore ways for our students to gain and enhance these skills to be prepared for the future.

The Partnership for 21st Century Learning has a framework that represents student outcomes and support systems. Although both student outcomes and support systems each have their own components, in the end they are interconnected. Briefly, support systems like curriculum, learning environment, and instructional methods are essential means to achieve the targeted student outcomes.

As teachers, we need to be innovative in designing curriculum, class activities, instructional methods, and learning environments because 21st century learning requires new instructional approaches to achieve this goal. The idea of using the engineering design process in our science classes came to light, due to this requirement.

21st Century Learning in Science Education

Science education is fundamental to the “Content Knowledge” section in the 21st Century Skills Framework. Beside the Content Knowledge, there are 3 more student outcomes, including “Learning and Innovation Skills”. The skills given under this title, which are known as the 4C’s,  are also the skills we find in the Nature of Science (NOS). So, these skills are not new to science education; however, linking them with other skills and content knowledge in the 21st century skills framework is new.

Other than the Content Knowledge and Learning and Innovations Skills, there are two more student outcomes which are: “Information, Media and Technology Skills” and “Life and Career Skills”. Below, we explain why engineering design can be used to take Information, Media and Technology Skills and Life and Career Skills into the scope of science.

To complete a comprehensive engineering design task and achieve intended results, students need to:

  • Access information efficiently
  • Evaluate information critically
  • Use the information for the problem at hand
  • Work in diverse teams
  • Follow a process
  • Manage time

In this sense, students use technology as a tool to research and organize the information, explore their potentials skills, and improve them for their future careers as targeted in the Information, Media and Technology Skills and Life and Career Skills.

Components of the support system like learning approaches and instructional methods are varied in science education: Problem-Based Learning, Project-Based Learning, Design-Based Learning, Situated Learning, Phenomenon-Based Learning, Active Learning and so on. While these are being used today to design lessons, STEM education has been casting a shadow on them for several years. We believe that the reason for this overshadowing is the content and the structure of the STEM education because STEM has the capacity to include all these approaches if the Engineering is used effectively.

Why Engineering in STEM Education?

The letter “E” in STEM is a new learning approach, and a considerable number of recent articles about STEM education emphasize the importance of engineering. But why? Based on our experiences in science education, we notice the advantages of using engineering for our science lessons. Although science and engineering are different disciplines, they interact with each other and these interactions make it easier to embed engineering into our science classes.

The crucial characteristics of engineering instruction are below, and all the characteristics given above overlap with the outcomes and the skills of 21st century science education.

  • Provides real-life problems
  • Follows an iterative process called “engineering design process”
  • Creates an active learning environment
  • Integrates various disciplines
  • Promotes collaboration and communication
Steps to Developing Rigorous, Arts-Focused STEAM Units

Arts – the one dimension differentiating STEAM from its predecessor, STEM – tends to get lost and overlooked. Here are three ways teachers can allow the “A” to shine in STEAM units in ways that enhance the other facets, including engineering.

Develop arts-centric STEAM units >>

What Is the Engineering Design Process?

There are variations of the engineering design process. Here is the process we use in our lessons:

  • Define the problem
  • Determine the parameters of the problem
  • Do background research
  • Brainstorm solutions
  • Choose the viable solution
  • Draw the design
  • Build a prototype
  • Test the prototype
  • Evaluate the test results
  • Redesign or improve the design
  • Present the results

Except for determining concentrations, drawing the design, and building the prototype, students know what to do. Therefore, they transfer the knowledge of scientific process to the engineering design process. In this way, we use a process which combines both scientific process and engineering design process for scientific inquiry.

According to our experiences, students comprehend the Engineering Design Process easily because they know how to use Scientific Process. Presenting a real life  problem – for example a GRASPS project, which requires students use scientific knowledge, scientific inquiry, and engineering design process – worked well in our case.  Students were so excited about their designs and were willing to improve them. Even when the class was over, and it was break time, they didn’t want to go out of the class before completing the task!

What Good Will Implementing Design with STEM Do?

In today’s world, it is important for the teachers to make learning more intrinsic. In this changing world, we need to prepare our students for the real world they will meet when they become adults.

Distinguished by continuous and rapid change, the 21st century requires our students to learn how to learn. Teaching the students how to manage their own learning must be the final goal of teaching.

The reward of accomplishing a task is measured by the task’s rigor and relevance. The more rigorous the problem is, the more brainstorming the students will need to do in order to find the answers. The more relevant the task is, the more engaged the students will be. When the task you are giving students is both rigorous and relevant, you create a challenge for them that they need to overcome only by using the 4C’s of 21st century learning. Creating ways to present students with real-life problems and giving them the opportunity to find the answers to those questions, should be our goal as teachers.

Most of us have met this question: “What will I do with this information when I grow up?” somewhere in our career, and yet some of us find it difficult to answer. What we are trying to do by implementing STEM, engineering design, and real-life problem solving in our science curriculum and lesson plans is to make our students discover their own answers for such a question.

In fact, what we are trying to do is to encourage them to ask this question in an enthusiastic and inquisitive tone, instead of out of frustration. “What will I do with this information? How can I learn more? How can I use this information to find a solution to problem?” To foster student engagement to a level in which they ask such probing questions without an easy answer out of an interest in learning and the learning process may as well be the inner goal of every science teacher.

From STEM to STEAM – use art to hone students’ design thinking skills and support engineering in science education >>


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