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Design-Based Learning: A New Paradigm for STEM Education

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Policymakers, educators and other stakeholders agree that all students – no matter where they live, what educational path they pursue, or in which field they choose to work – need to be science literate if they are to drive future innovation and to contribute to the rapidly changing global economy. To meet this charge, schools have been challenged to redefine mathematics and science education to support multiple strands of inquiry and exploration across the curriculum. The challenge is to offer tools that help students experience excitement, motivation and interest with respect to the natural and built world; develop and use scientific explanations, concepts and models; generate scientific evidence to understand issues; reflect on science as a way of knowing; participate in science practices (e.g., presenting their findings); and identify themselves as science learners capable of doing science.

For this transformation to occur, the Carnegie Corporation’s Institute for Advanced Study Commission on Mathematics and Science Education argues we must move away from the current system of “telling” students about science to one that helps students gain critical problem-solving and inquiry skills in the context of relevant, real-world, interdisciplinary problems. While it’s clear from the Commission’s research that young people care deeply about contemporary STEM-related (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) problems and are motivated to solve them (e.g., health and global warming), many teachers see such investigations as daunting to implement. Furthermore, with rapid advances in science and technology, schools often have limited access to up-to-date resources, strategies and pedagogical supports to bring such relevant content into the classroom creatively.

Design-based teaching and learning can help teachers and students address the challenges of science literacy and offer a new and effective approach to STEM engagement. Design is a process by which people from diverse fields make decisions about the form, function, and use of materials to create artifacts, systems and tools that solve a range of problems, large and small. By focusing on design, one learns how to identify a problem or need, how to consider design options and constraints, and how to plan, model, test and iterate solutions to vexing problems, making higher-order thinking skills tangible and visible. Design-based activities can be intrinsically motivating to teachers and students because they engage the desire to make things and learn how things work. Design also responds to the interdisciplinary complexity of life, requiring that multiple areas of expertise be brought to bear on real-world problems, making it a natural approach for integrating STEM into all subject areas.

Teachers TryScience is a resource, developed by IBM in partnership with the New York Hall of Science and others, that is intended to help teachers introduce design-based science practices into their classrooms. The site contains engaging lesson plans; media assets, such as videos and podcasts that provide “how-to” tips and strategies for teachers; and collaboration tools that foster discussion and a sense of community.

Engaging in activities such as designing solar cars, creating water filtration systems and exploring possibilities for alternative energy sources all help learners develop a deep conceptual understanding of the knowledge and principles of a domain, and support the development of self-guided inquiry skills that are often difficult to teach. To teach STEM effectively through design, teachers need to experience the excitement of how design can be used to address 21st-century challenges, learn how to guide and facilitate such investigations with students, and gain strategies and resources that help them integrate design-based STEM teaching in the classroom. Doing this work while engaging with a larger and like-minded community of educators is exactly what Teachers TryScience supports.

Margaret Honey, Ph.D., is President and CEO of the New York Hall of Science.

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