STEM education programs need both inquiry/process and content. Most programs that I am familiar with do inquiry well. They do content less well. In fact, some programs are all inquiry and no content. This is a critical flaw. However, it is relatively easy to fix, because even small elements of content can make a complete STEM learning experience.
Recently a colleague and I had an enlightening discussion with some nonformal STEM educators at the Colloquium on p-12 STEM Education Research. We asked them "What do you want youth to learn in your program?"
The key words for their answers were: inquiry-based learning, learner-directed learning, less content, fun, hands-on activities, lifelong learning, real-world context, collaborative, and technology literacy.
These are great responses and fit very well with two important framing documents for STEM learning today: Framework for K-12 Science Education (2011) and the soon-to-be-published Next Generation Science Standard (2013), both from the National Research Council of the National Academy of Science.
However, we need to make sure that skills and practices (the inquiry, or process) are balanced by content knowledge. Engaging in science requires both of these.
For example, a youth could succeed at building a robot by following instructions (thereby learning a skill). But without an understanding of how robots are used in the real world (content), she might never apply that skill, or know what it is for.
A science program needs to have a broad vision to help youth practice both skills and content knowledge to do empirical investigation and inquiry. In other words, focusing on inquiry only addresses one part of the national science education guideline. We need to add more content into non-formal STEM program design.
When designing a STEM program, you can start with a small content goal. For example, if you only have 45 minutes to deliver a robotics program, the content knowledge that we want youth to take home after the program can be as small as understanding what a robot is. The program can aim to help youth to see that real-world robots are not characters in science-fiction movies like R2D2, but in the automatic door at Walmart and in the thermostat in their house that senses temperature in the room to adjust heating and cooling automatically.
Don't be afraid to add content to program design. Only small steps are needed. Helping youth to practice their skills and content knowledge in a STEM program should be the new goal for us when we design non-formal STEM program.
Can you see the need for more content in STEM learning? Do you see obstacles to doing so? How have you incorporated content into science learning?
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